College employees are subject to school policies regarding electronic communications. Published guidelines spell out the acceptable uses of the college's electronic communications systems and may include specified consequences for failure to adhere to them. If you are an employee of a college or university, you should become familiar with these rules, since the penalties can sometimes be onerous.
Campus Electronic Communications Policies
Whether you are a staff member or a professor, it is important to understand the extent to which your electronic communications must comply with your institution's requirements. College policies will cover:
Various types of communication, such as:
- Electronic Communication: Connecticut State Colleges and Universities define this as “Any communication that is broadcast, created, sent, forwarded, replied to, transmitted, stored, held, copied, downloaded, displayed, viewed, read, or printed by one or several electronic communications services, including but not limited to email and telephone.”
- Email: Hunter College includes “point-to-point messages, postings to newsgroups and listservs, and other electronic messages involving computers and computer networks.”
- Employees and others: For example, Ramapo College defines “Covered Persons” as “All current members of the college community including staff, faculty, students, adjunct faculty, eligible retirees and college volunteers…who have been granted access to college systems.”
If you have been accused of an electronic communications violation, the wisest course is to immediately consult with an attorney-advisor who has a proven track record in defending these cases. Someone with substantial experience will help you understand how and whether the policy applies to you, and can advise you regarding disciplinary procedures.
Types of Communications Violations
Your educational institution's electronic and IT policy, usually found on their website, may limit your communicating via their electronic facilities in myriad ways. As an example of these wide-ranging and differing policies, The City University of New York prohibits the use of its Computer Resources for “defamation, invasion of privacy, obscenity and child pornography, and online gambling,” and requires that electronic communication not violate the law.
In addition, many common institutional IT restrictions exist around:
- Promotional activity for personal financial gain
- Attempts to get around security provisions
- Facilitating access by unauthorized users
- Political activity
- Personal emails, in general
- Harassment, especially regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
- Transmittal of confidential information obtained as a result of being an employee
- Wasting computer resources by sending bulk emails or chain letters, etc.
- Violating prohibitions against collecting restricted information online
- Downloading and installing unauthorized programs or links
- Inappropriately revealing student data to outside individuals
- Hacking into others' email, accounts, etc.
- Overuse of bandwidth, thereby damaging functionality
- Speech that threatens an educational institution's qualification as a non-profit
- Disclosure of the institution's passwords or other restricted information
- Pretending to be another person or committing fraud
- Communications that affect the university's reputation
- Committing acts of academic dishonesty
If you are facing disciplinary charges for any of the above, an experienced attorney-advisor will help you to evaluate how to best defend yourself, and will work to protect you from harsh consequences such as censorship or dismissal. You may not have intended to violate the rules, but even communications which might have been entirely innocent, i.e., sending an email with information that you did not know was confidential, can land you in deep trouble. A seasoned attorney-advisor will help you properly convey all of the circumstances surrounding your actions.
Defending Against Charges of Electronic Communications Violations
As part of a university community — whether you are a sports coach, administrator, or instructor— you must be cautious about computer use policies. If you have run afoul of these, an attorney-advisor can also help you raise questions about the evidence in any disciplinary action. For example, there may be problems of proof—i.e., is it absolutely certain that the communication is from your account, or came from your computer or phone? You may believe that you have been hacked, and want to assert that the accusation is false.
Similarly, someone who has presented evidence against you to the institution may have their own motivations for having done so: did they perhaps post or email something and attribute it to you? A talented attorney-advisor will look deeply into the situation with an eye toward the people or groups involved, their relationships, etc. They will review postings and communications made by other interested parties to see if they are comparable.
The statements or communications made should be evaluated in context, in case smaller snippets of conversation or abbreviated thoughts may mean something other than what the institution is claiming. There may be an alternate yet reasonable interpretation of a posting, based on information the college is unaware of.
If other evidence needs to be presented in your defense, attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento can organize, research, and help you present it in the best possible light. They will advise you regarding both the content and tone of your defense. For example, an aggressive stance may not be the best approach in many cases where you are dealing with an educational institution. There may also be mitigating circumstances within your own life or the situation that should be put forth on your behalf.
Should You Hire Someone to Defend You?
Your career in academia is likely the product of hard work and financial sacrifice. You may have spent many years searching for the “perfect fit” between your background, credentials, and a particular institution of higher learning. You have a strong vested interest in preserving your reputation and position, which can be damaged by an unfair accusation.