Should Lawprofs be Facebook "Friends" with Students?

Rob Vischer of Prawfsblawg has joined the ranks of law professors concerned about the ethics of facebook friendship with their students:

What does FB mean for the professor-student relationship? I'm not talking about whether the law school should use FB as a professional networking venture; I'm talking about what students know about you and what you know about your students. I still base my image of the law school professor on Phil Areeda, who I'm certain would have had me arrested if I had dropped by his office to chat about the weekend....

And now what have I become? Going out with students for a beer, fielding a flag football team, and playing basketball with students has always made me an enthusiast for the friendship that dare not speak its name, but now I've taken it to another level -- I'm FB friends with my students. I'm all up in their business, and they're in mine. Is it wrong? Is it a concern? Do any other faculty FBers deny student friend requests? Do you keep them on a separate friend list with more limited access to your page? At least for me, the notion of keeping a mysterious distance between students and myself was a non-starter, but have I (or my students) lost something in the process?

I commented on these issues in this post last year, responding to an earlier post by legal scholar Gene Koo. I still think that there is no problem with Facebook friendships between professors and students. It's a far from intimate relationship, to put it mildly. Of course, I don't put any extremely intimate or private material on my Facebook page; people who can see it are not "all up in [my] business." They just know a few basic facts about my work, background and interests. Putting much more than that up on Facebook is unwise for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with academic ethics.

Students who see my Facebook page probably don't know as much about me as those who stop by my office regularly to talk about law, policy, or baseball. If the latter is a permissible form of student-faculty interaction, so too is Facebook "friendship."

Brian Mac:

Of course, I don't put any extremely intimate or private material on my Facebook page; people who can see it are not "all up in [my] business."

But isn't there still a problem with you having access to your students, ahem, intimate or private details?

Funnily enough, there's a Facebook group dedicated to shutting down your blog:

"Against 'The Volokh Conspiracy' and their Bashing of Disabilities"

Be afraid!
2.3.2009 7:39am
One good rule: a professor shouldn't ask a student to be a Facebook friend, but if a student asks a professor to be a friend, it's ok to accept.
2.3.2009 8:26am
4F (mail):
Same issues in the medical field....most of the residents I teach and the former residents I taught are on facebook. Facebook is a good venue for keeping up with people. However, like any venue it can be misused. I learned somethings I'd rather not have known about peoples indiscretions. Facebook is fascinating, both in what is posted and what is not posted. I know some former friends and I can't tell from their facebook pages whether they are still married, etc. Definitely a potential for strangeness out there.
2.3.2009 8:29am
Crispulo Marmolejo (mail):
I believe in this kind of "professor -student" friendship through Facebook. I think it is a good tool to post, discuss current events and keep the flock together. Indeed, I agree with Ilya about the level of your privacy with your students, because I'm not able to expose my intimacy. I've tried to build a really "scholar" Facebook, with pages about other law professors, videos of blogging Tv programs. My guess is that my students know that this is an academic FB. So, there is no matter for scholars with an scholar facebook.
2.3.2009 9:24am
I don't see why Facebook "friendship" would be any different from real friendship. Either one may involve you more in the intimate details of another's life than you want. There are issues involved in friendships with subordinates (I don't have students, but I do have associates, so I confront these issues from time to time.) But Facebook itself doesn't change those issues.
2.3.2009 9:33am
I can tell you that there were no hot professors at my law school, hence no chance of something really, um 'inappropriate.' However one of my buddies was sleeping with the dean's secretary for a time, who was in fact pretty hot.
2.3.2009 9:41am
Pete Guither (mail) (www):
I agree with the simple rule stated by tdsj above. As long as they're students, I never ask - only reciprocate if they ask. Once they graduate, then I'll ask (Facebook is an incredibly good way to keep up with alums).

I don't find any real problems with the sharing of personal information and opinions with students on FB, but then again, I'm in the arts, not law. We tend to be a big family/community anyway.
2.3.2009 9:46am
corneille1640 (mail):
I teach in the humanities (i.e., I'm not a law prof). I really don't have a problem with other people facebook-friending their students. But as for me, I think it's a bad idea and I don't do it, because I like to keep a certain line between myself and my students.
2.3.2009 10:22am
Jeff Hall (www):
But why shouldn't professors and students be friends? Isn't that why colleges are called colleges?
2.3.2009 10:38am
This assumes its even appropriate for professors to have a facebook page to begin with. Im generally skeptical of anyone over 30 who has a facebook account, let alone a law professor.
2.3.2009 10:43am
Pete Freans (mail):
Absolutely not. I teach a constitutional law class (albeit not to law students, but to law enforcement officers) and as flattered as I was that my students wanted to be friends with me, I didn't feel comfortable with it. I believe that a certain degree of professionalism must be maintained in order to be an effective law instructor.

Keep in mind that I am not teaching an environmental philosophy elective to an 19 year old pledging a fraternity. I know that my students both want and need to learn the material that I would argue has more practical importance than whether plants have souls. My personal life quite frankly is irrelevant. Their only concern should be if they can pass my exams and mine is whether they retain and understand the material.

Having said that, once a student has graduated, I don't see anything wrong with developing a personal/professional friendship outside the classroom.
2.3.2009 10:44am

Im generally skeptical of anyone over 30 who has a facebook account

What, exactly, is a facebook account?
2.3.2009 11:10am
Preferred Customer:

The number of people over 30 who have FB pages is quite large, and is growing every day. At this point, the majority of my acquaintances (nearly all of whom, sadly, are over 30) have a presence on FB; it's becoming the exception rather than the rule to NOT be on.

It's an incredibly useful tool for staying in touch with people and for re-connecting with people whom you'd lost touch with for whatever reason, but in the professional environment it does create some potential issues--what happens if your boss friends you? A colleague with whom you are friendly at work but have no interest in knowing more about? Will ignoring those requests have consequences for your relationship with those people?

As with any new tech, there are new ethics rules that will need to be worked out.
2.3.2009 11:11am
Prof. Vischer is obviously not Practitioner Vischer or he would understand the problem. Whatever someone puts on-line stays there, available for the world, forever. Things that seem "cute" or "clever" at the time can come back to haunt later -- especially when they fall into the hands of someone (like an opposing litigator) who has an axe to grind. I defended and settled a case sometime back in which the opposing party (unbeknownst to his attorney) had a FB-type account, and commented extensively on his case. Liability was clear, but his comments reduced the value of his case to less than a third of what it otherwise likely would have been. All Prof. Vischer needs to learn of the danger of his practice is to be on the wrong end of a harassment allegation.

A fool and his money are soon parted. Prof. Vischer is being foolish.
2.3.2009 11:18am
Im generally skeptical of anyone over 30 who has a facebook account, let alone a law professor.

And remember, don't trust anyone over 30! Seriously, though, facebook jumped the generation gap about a year ago, and a lot of law profs are on it.
2.3.2009 11:27am
Ilya Somin:
One good rule: a professor shouldn't ask a student to be a Facebook friend, but if a student asks a professor to be a friend, it's ok to accept.

I in fact follow this approach myself. But I'm not sure that it is ethically required.
2.3.2009 11:33am
I've always thought that the phrase "friend" on Facebook is a bit of a misnomer. "Friending" someone on a general social networking site doesn't really imply any sort of actual friendship, intimate relationship, desire to exchange bodily fluids, or whatever. It's merely a cutely named reciprocal authorization to permit another to access content one posts on the site and to communicate in a format that (IMHO) is somewhat less useful for serious discourse than e-mail. Your friend list, or IM buddylist, or similar on-line authorizations, imply little more than your willingness to share information with others.

The teacher/student problem arises when Facebook users are more indiscreet with details of their personal lives than they should be. This is especially bad when they're professionals or pre-professionals. And is a problem that is not entirely limited to cyberspace, unfortunately. But if a professor handles this situation on Facebook like he would in the real world -- by maintaining a dignified, professional public facade -- the fact that the student "friend" may step over the line with the information she discloses is not much different than the professor walking across the Quad on a warm spring day and seeing his students partying or engaged in displays of affection that probably shouldn't be occurring in a public venue. And the Miss Manners solution is the same: Don't gawk, and for heaven's sake, don't join in!
2.3.2009 11:44am
Be adraid of apartheid in all its forms, (such as age apartheid), even in unwritten, (implied), well understood instruction sets.
2.3.2009 1:01pm
Arr-Squared (mail):
I'm a 36 year old professor in the social sciences, and I choose not to accept FB requests from students, though I'm always glad to add alumni.

And for what it's worth, virtually every member of my HS graduating class (1990) has a FB.
2.3.2009 1:45pm
Katl L (mail):
I follow tdsj┬┤s rule. I would like to have the option to share VC in my facebook because that i usually post economics, law and arts links in it since i know student will be reading.
2.3.2009 1:47pm
wolfefan (mail):
Facebook is blocked here at work so I can't check, but I'd bet good money that I can name who started the anti-Volokh page mentioned above... any guesses?
2.3.2009 1:52pm
Eric Muller (www):
I'm with Arr-Squared. It makes me uncomfortable to friend current students, both because I'm sure I'll end up seeing stuff about them that I don't want or need to know, and I'm also sure I'll occasionally self-censor.
2.3.2009 2:40pm
theobromophile (www):
If a student doesn't want a professor to read his status messages or see his drunken Feb Club pictures, he can just (drumroll) not friend his professors on Facebook. By adding a prof, the student has pretty much made it clear that he doesn't mind the prof seeing whatever happens to be on there. IMHO, the bigger concern is not in the consensual friendships, but with professors who look at the pages of their students who haven't bothered to use the privacy controls to block out non-friends.

Of course, I don't put any extremely intimate or private material on my Facebook page; people who can see it are not "all up in [my] business."

That approach works, to an extent. Half the fun, and all of the embarrassment, that comes from Facebook is not in what you post of yourself, but what your friends post of you - on your Wall, in photos that are tagged of you, etc.

Im generally skeptical of anyone over 30 who has a facebook account, let alone a law professor.

So us twenty-somethings who got the accounts when we were in law school (back when FB required its members to have a .edu email address) should shut them down when we hit 30? Interesting.
2.3.2009 3:55pm
Bama 1L:
consensual friendships

This raises the issue of feeling obliged, because of other considerations, to add someone as a facebook friend. Not cool. So I think it is generally wrong for a professor to send a friend request to a student, because the student may not feel free to refuse the request.

Anyway, there's nothing interesting on law student webpages. Career Services drills it into everyone's heads that they will not get jobs if they put anything at all on their facebook profiles.
2.3.2009 4:31pm
Tritium (mail):
Only if they're having sex.
2.3.2009 6:00pm
Tritium (mail):
Perhaps I should be more specific. Should a Defense or Prosecuting attorney be facebook buddies with a Judge? Though the person may be interesting, lines should be drawn. If there were a Class related FB page... perhaps that is acceptable. But any relationship beyond the professional should be avoided until after the student is done with your class.
2.3.2009 6:05pm
Bill McGonigle (www):
My general rule is this: only real friends are accepted as Facebook friends. If I just met you, I'll add you once we get to know each other. If I only know you from an online forum, sorry, maybe we'll meet some day.

So, in the given example, those students who stop by to chat about policy and baseball have a personal relationship with you, but those who only show up in class have only a professional relationship with you. So they should be in your Linkedin network. :)

I know people who have over 500 friends/contacts on Facebook/Linkedin and I believe they're not getting out of the system what they're supposed to be. If you codify every person you meet as a friend then you've lost the distinction between friend and acquaintance and since you've thrown away information you've thrown away opportunity.
2.3.2009 6:45pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
I have sixty friends on FB, including coworkers (past and present,) and interact with them socially in more or less the same way on and offline. I wouldn't friend someone who wasn't a friend - you can be members of a group together, or fans of the same entity, or users of a particular application together, to codify nearly every less-formal connection. You can also be on LinkedIn, which is built for networking more than maintaining existing social connections.

Doesn't anyone else remember stories of professors having students over for dinner and such? I know that LDS students at the military academies are routinely invited to the homes of professors who are also LDS, for example, and I seem to remember from my college visits that both Thomas Aquinas and St. John's (Annapolis) were full of similar behavior. It seems to me FB is a natural extension of that sort of thing.

And, for what it's worth, the "worst" thing I've learned about anyone from FB is that they're not straight (okay, and there's one guy who thinks it's hilarious to joke about eating babies.) The worst thing that anyone's learned about me is that I have a bizarre affinity for cottage cheese and that I was a profoundly geeky kid. It's a less-drunk version of a typical college social environment.
2.3.2009 8:37pm
stephen (mail):
I sometimes create a FB Group for my smaller classes so we can exchange ideas on the board and trade links, stories, etc. Being a part of a group does not require you to be friends with everyone in the group, so you can keep it professional and know that they don't have access to personal stuff. As said above though, if a current student requests, I will accept. At the end of the semester I defriend all my students, but i have occasionally kept one or two students as friends for other reasons, ie. research, TA, etc.

For those concerned about letting out too much information, FB can be highly customized to allow only certain people different access settings. Go here to get FB's 10 Privacy Settings Every FB User Should Know.
2.4.2009 12:51am
Just a Heads up. Someone's dumping what seem like $billions again into the media and to politicians in another huge blitzkrieg of propaganda against "sexual predators" and "pedophiles", anew. This almost always means that there is a massive rip-off going on somewhere or a huge usurpation power-grab and they are doing this as misdirection.

This link is to one of many on stories about myspace turning over identities of sex offenders. Face book hasn't sent in their list yet.

In my area, the local TV news is nearly non-stop scaremongering right now with all manner of these stories. As an example, one story was about a school teacher who was arrested some years later for sexual contact with a student of hers when he was 17 years old. The video graphics they used on the story though, were of swings on an elementary school playground. They also interviewed some woman who declared she just learned the story and was now "TERRIFIED".

Just because this blitzkrieg started as Obama came into office, doesn't mean the seeming $billions being spent came from this country, say as part of the secret bailout and/or stimulus. It could be the International Bankers bankrolling it. They have also recently whipped up China and Europe into a sudden hysterical frenzy, too.
2.4.2009 4:47am
YoungLookingVAP (mail):
As a young looking unmarried VAP, I've decided to err on the side of caution. No Facebook friends with students until they graduate. When they request me as a friend, I politely explain my rule to them, and tell them I'm happy to add them on graduation day.

I don't have a clear rationale other than prudence, and a desire to avoid the knowledge that comes with Facebook status updates "Steve Smith is completely hungover and hating to go to VAPs class right now" etc.

I also have another paranoid rule learned in my prior job-- when meeting with a student I ask that the door remain slightly ajar (this used to be a rule applied only to female students, but I now employ it universally).

Sure, these may be grounded in paranoia, but especially as a VAP it is best to not rock the boat-- that means minimizing the chances for rocking.
2.4.2009 10:12am
Rob Sama (mail) (www):

They just know a few basic facts about my work, background and interests. Putting much more than that up on Facebook is unwise for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with academic ethics.

I'd be interested in hearing those reasons. I have refused to go onto facebook for a variety of reasons, including terrible privacy policies and claims that everything uploaded to their site now belongs to them. Facebook also strikes me as a took for social mischief. What point is there or purpose could there be for me to connect and communicate with old girlfriends, or even long lost acquaintances from chapters of my life that closed long ago?

I don't understand it, but am interested to hearing others' objections to facebook, or self-imposed limitations on using it.
2.4.2009 10:15am
jamiecjamie (mail):
Face book isn't for everyone, some people are sooo busy they don't or can't take time. Some people have no interest in how other people are doing, problems they may have, great things they accomplished. Some people don't have family, FB has created a support group with friends that give advice and help out when things are tough. For those professor's who do have FB sites, THAT'S GREAT! I'm a student, when I see a professor (or anyone over the age of 30) it tells me instantly a few things about them (1) They are up to date on technology trends (intelligence) (2) Friendly and outgoing (3) Not ashamed of who they are and have nothing to hide (3) Their level of education has not created an idealistic self image that stands above the rest of the world. Thousand's of students now days are achieving high levels of education and accepting challenging careers. Most of them probably have fB pages. For someone to say they are to mature to communicate through an online site with friends and family.. well, I don't think that degree did them much good. : )
2.4.2009 11:31am
EvidenceGirl (mail):
i think that as long as professors aren't putting every little detail of their life on facebook, it isn't a problem.
additionally, i think that many are overestimating the propensity that law students may have to constantly be checking their professor's facebook pages... i don't think that they are THAT interested...
2.4.2009 6:48pm
Meaty Ochre:
there are too many abbreviations on this web site. at least here "FB" appears after the word "facebook" so we can understand it but lots of time, especially inKerr's posts, there are esoteric abbreviations that are never spelled out. Is that just typical law professor "if you have to ask then you'll never know" or what?
2.5.2009 12:43am

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