On the Use of Cell Phones to Record College Classes

Technological changes have a way of creating new problems. Cell phones have created quite a few, and one of them is the fact that they can be used to make audio and visual reproductions of events. Some people see that as a problem, anyway, including professors and academic officials who discover that accurate reproductions of what goes on in the classroom can be embarrassing.

At the beginning of the current academic year, for example, a writing professor at Michigan State launched into a harangue against Republicans and conservatives. A student captured the rant on his cell phone and when it went public, the university had to suspend him, although that was barely any punishment at all. (Read about it here.)

Last February, something similar occurred at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. In an introductory sociology class, “Individuals and Society,” the instructor invited in a guest lecturer, Eyon Biddle. Mr. Biddle is the director of organizing in Milwaukee for the Service Employees International Union. His talk was simply a harangue about the evils caused by Republicans, who are racist, classist, homophobic and dishonest. A student, Kyle Brooks, used his cell phone to record it. Later he made it public and he talks about the event in this video.

And how did the university administration react? Was the instructor told not to waste the time of her students with guest speakers who have nothing enlightening to say to sociology students?

No. The school merely told the faculty that it should be “balanced” in classroom material. More importantly, it is moving to ban the use of cell phones to record what goes on in UW-Whitewater classrooms. The faculty senate has approved the ban and Chancellor Richard Telfer has indicated that he supports it, saying “Faculty on this campus have the right to establish the policies for their individual classrooms.”

Had that rule been in effect for Biddle’s “lecture,” students who thought it inappropriate – even offensive – would have had a tough choice to make: either just talk or write about it without clear evidence to support their statements, or make the recording in violation of the instructor’s rule and risk sanctions for having done so.

The great thing about recordings is that they eliminate the problems that arise when people speak just from memory. If Mr. Brooks had merely stated that Biddle’s talk was a nasty diatribe against his political enemies, that would have probably led to replies that he was exaggerating or even making his story up. If colleges and universities tell faculty members that it is all right for them to ban recordings, some will use that authority to hide what goes on in their classes.

On the other hand, an argument advanced for the power to ban recordings is that students might feel less free to speak out in class if they know or at least suspect that someone is getting it all down via cell phone. That isn’t a frivolous argument. Conceivably, a student’s comment about a controversial topic could be recorded and later made public to the student’s detriment.

My view is that the potential good that can come from recordings outweighs the potential harm, but this is one of those First Amendment/free speech issues where finding the right balance won’t be easy.

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George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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