Medical student punished by school for Instagram photos
In January 2017, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) censured a student for violating the school’s social media policy, citing two photos the student had posted to her Instagram account before she had matriculated there. One photo showed the woman nude on a topless beach, her nipples blurred in accordance with Instagram’s policy, with “#freethenipple” in the caption. The other photo showed her in a CMSRU lab coat in front of a school backdrop. The student, who has remained anonymous, was required to meet with school officials, who advised her to alter or terminate her social media usage.
CMSRU is a public medical school founded in 2012 in Camden, New Jersey, with a student body of approximately 300 students. Its “Social Network Policy” encourages students to be thoughtful when posting on social media, but according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the original policy was not compliant with the First Amendment.
According to FIRE, the student was first contacted about her social media usage in July 2016 by CMSRU’s associate dean for diversity and community affairs, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams, who alerted her to the school’s policy and warned her that “once students matriculate at CMSRU the policy . . . is in effect.” The student responded to Mitchell-Williams’ email to ask for clarification, but said she never received a response.
On January 6, 2017, Marion Lombardi, CMSRU’s chief student affairs officer, and Erin Pukenas, the assistant dean for student affairs, called a meeting with the student and gave her a “Professionalism Intervention Report” regarding a “collage of sexually explicit photos.” The report asserted that she was in violation of the social media policy because of her photos on Instagram. Comments on the photos seemed to suggest she was “condoning sexual promiscuity,” the student affairs representatives said. Lombardi told the student this report could affect her future at the school, as well as her medical career. Pukenas told her that any CMSRU-related posts on the student’s account must be removed.
When Carolyn Bekes, CMSRU’s director of professionalism, met with the student later that month, she assigned her a “punishment” in the form of a PowerPoint presentation on social media and professionalism in medicine. The student completed the presentation in early March 2017.
Bekes, who has worked for Cooper University Hospital since 1977, encouraged the student to curtail or end her usage of social media in order to prevent future violations of CMSRU’s policy. The director of professionalism would not confirm that the presentation would “‘close’ the files in a way that they will never be used against [the student] in the future,” and encouraged her to have another person, preferably someone “more conservative,” review her posts on social media before making them public.
When Pukenas and Lombardi met with the student on January 6, they had reportedly explained that the social media policy was intentionally “kind of broad . . . because [the school] can’t get into every specific.” The deliberate lack of specificity in the initial policy caused FIRE to call it unconstitutional, and “at odds with the most basic principles of First Amendment precedent, which makes clear that broad and vague policies do not comport with the First Amendment.”
On May 9, 2017, FIRE sent a letter to the CMSRU documenting the weaknesses and errors of the school’s “Social Network Policy.” FIRE demanded that the school remove the “Professionalism Intervention Report” from the student’s file and revise the policy immediately.
CMSRU updates Social Network Policy
After receiving FIRE’s letter, CMSRU amended its social media policy. Specifically, CMSRU removed language regarding “potentially offensive language,” “personal photographs of others that may reasonably be interpreted as condoning . . . sexual promiscuity,” and “posting potentially inflammatory or unflattering material on another individual’s website.”
Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20
Uploaded March 5, 2018