Feds investigate campus Yik Yak threats

Probe examines University of Mary Washington’s response to rape threats on social media.

Does a university’s responsibility to provide a safe campus environment go beyond classrooms and dorms and into the murky digital world of social media?

That’s the question at the heart of the federal investigation into University of Mary Washington’s response to anonymous threats targeting feminist students on the social media application Yik Yak.

While other social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter connect people around the globe, Yik Yak instead provides local and anonymous messaging board popular among college campuses.

Members of Feminists United on Campus in Mary Washington say they were deluged with hundreds of nasty messages last year, including some threatening rape, after protesting a sexist chant by the rugby team. The threats left some students feeling afraid to leave their rooms.

This anonymous Yik Yak message was among dozens submitted to the Department of Education by an attorney for Feminists United on Campus in a complaint alleging the university allowed a hostile environment on campus. (Provided by Debra Katz)

In May, the students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the university created a hostile environment for women by ignoring these threats.

An attorney for the students announced Wednesday at a National Press Club news conference that federal officials had formally opened an investigation into the matter. At the conference, advocates for women urged federal guidelines for how universities should respond to social media online harassment and threats based on gender, race and sexual orientation.

“This is not an issue of free speech. This is an issue of safety,” said Annie Clark, president of End Rape on Campus.

Implementing a landmark equality law from 1972 in 2015

The students’ complaints are based on Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

The law has been the basis of boosting funding for women’s sports, cracking down on sexual harassment and lawsuits alleging universities failed to respond to sexual assault cases.

What drives these cases is the idea that discrimination disrupts a woman’s education. Advocates say the same Title IX principles that mandate school intervention when a male student shouts sexually lewd comments at a woman every day in class extends to the digital world where the same student can make the same comments behind the cloak of anonymity.

In the Mary Washington case, the feminist students say the case for the school to monitor Yik Yak is even stronger because of the high volume of messages and that they were posted in a campus-specific environment.

“UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws — not just Title IX”

The University of Mary Washington strongly denies that it ignored harassment on Yik Yak.

In a letter publicized on campus, university President Rick Hurley said the administration sent a campus-wide email saying it would take threats seriously and encouraged reporting, provided a police escort to one student who received a threat and fostered student dialogue about sexual harassment.

But banning Yik Yak from university servers and wireless internet networks would have gone too far, he said.

“UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws — not just Title IX. The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech,” wrote Hurley, whose letter is also investigated by the Department of Education as possible retaliation for the complaint.

The university in a statement Wednesday said it welcomed Department of Education guidance on preventing sexual misconduct, but did not respond to allegations of retaliation.

“We don’t want universities to become police states”

Debra Katz announces progress in the federal complaint against the University of Mary Washington at a National Press Club news conference. Photo by Fenit Nirappil.

The students concede that universities can’t be scrolling through reams of tweets and Facebook posts for any harassing mentions of their students.

Debra Katz, the attorney representing Feminists United on Campus, says school administrations must get involved once students complain that online harassment is disrupting their educations. She says universities can take decisive action by monitoring posts and reporting threatening ones to law enforcement, including a seminar on online harassment in student orientations and, in extreme cases, barring access to Yik Yak on campus, or geozoning.

“We don’t want universities to become police states,” said Katz. “On the other hand, if students do not know the repercussions facing them are serious, as serious as the threats they are making, it will not stop.”

Police have arrested people for threatening school shootings and other campus violence (including at Texas A&M this week) on Yik Yak. Katz says threats of rape and other violence should be treated with the same urgency.

Preventing Threats on Yik Yak

Anonymous messaging apps are rife with potential for hateful and discriminatory speech without social consequence.

Here are some ways Yik Yak says it cracks down on abusive posts:

  1. Automatic filters: Abusive language will prompt warning messages and are flagged by moderators. A spokeswoman for Yik Yak says the company is adopting machine learning and language processing technology to better filter and catch abusive language early on, but critics say this approach is easily circumvented and not foolproof. Derogatory terms for gay people and black people do not prompt warnings.
This warning appears when users attempt to submit messages with possible threatening language, including rape.

2. Down voting: Message will disappear if it receives “5 down votes,” meaning at least five more people disapprove than approve the post.

3. Moderators: Users can flag offensive and threatening comments for review by moderators.

4. Law enforcement referrals: Yik Yak complies with court orders and subpoenas to reveal the identity of users behind the most alarming posts and may act without a warrant if there is an imminent threat, such as a purported school shooter.

This is how Yik Yak users in American University responded when asked if these measures went far enough: