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Title IX & Student Conduct Code Blog

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How Social Media Affects Title IX Investigations

These days, social media plays a key role in campus life for students and staff alike. Therefore, it’s not surprising that social media platforms can tremendously impact Title IX investigations.

Social media posts might be used as evidence in Title IX cases, but the ability to use social media as evidence often depends on the circumstances. Platforms can also provide a medium for Title IX violations such as sexual harassment. Students and staff need to understand the potential effects of social media and how to protect themselves from uses that could damage their rights and standing in Title IX cases.

Social Media as a Digital Witness

With people posting so many details from their daily lives—including their thoughts and images—on social media, it would seem to be an obvious source of evidence in Title IX cases. However, that evidence may not always be permissible, depending on various factors.

Preservation of Social Media Posts

Thoughts are fleeting, but once they are uttered in a social media post, they may be preserved forever. Even on a platform like Snapchat, where messages disappear automatically, a screenshot is all it takes to make a message immortal.

A screenshot can be particularly valuable as evidence because it shows a post with elements arranged the same way they were originally visible to viewers. When someone prints a social media post or saves it as a PDF, words and images can get jumbled around and lose their meaning. Whether preserving a post through a print function or as a screenshot, it is good to make sure that evidence of the webpage address and date are included.

In some cases, if a post is not removed quickly, an attorney or investigator could use special software to preserve social media evidence that includes information embedded in the post. This metadata includes information such as:

  • Location
  • Date
  • Time
  • Brower
  • Poster’s IP address

This software is designed to meet evidentiary rules so that content can be digitally signed and time-stamped.

When Social Media May Not Be Allowed as Evidence

Title IX proceedings are not handled like criminal or civil court cases. Rather than following the Federal Rules of Evidence or a state equivalent, Title IX cases proceed according to rules established by the individual college or university. Those rules may determine whether a student can introduce social media evidence in support of a complaint or provide a defense for a respondent.

Some school policies refer to social media postings in reference to Title IX cases, and some do not. The policies may only apply to posts about an event sponsored by the school, activities occurring on campus, or any activities involving a student or staff member. It is important to review the college or university policies carefully to determine whether and how evidence of social media communications can be used in a Title IX investigation.

Ways Social Media is Often Used in Title IX Cases

Social media shares words and images, so there is virtually no limit to the ways in which posts can be used in a Title IX case. Some common situations include:

  • Selfie photos showing a complainant and respondent together at a party
  • Communications revealing a complainant or respondent’s intentions while taking certain actions
  • Photos or comments by witnesses
  • Messages posted after an event supporting a complainant or respondent
  • Explicit images shared by respondent
  • Posts that harass or threaten a complainant

In the last two examples, the social media posts not only could serve as evidence of a Title IX violation, but they may also constitute the violation itself.

Social Media as a Medium for Harassment

With so much focus on Title IX in athletics and date rape cases, many people forget that Title IX protects students from other forms of sexual harassment as well. This includes sex-based harassment, which may not be sexual at all. Harassment based on gender stereotyping, for instance, can constitute a Title IX violation.

Posts on social media can be used deliberately or incidentally to harass someone on campus. It can be challenging to trace posts on certain social media sites like Yik Yak, which are ostensibly anonymous. Nevertheless, if harassment interferes with a student’s ability to benefit from a school program, it may be worth gathering social media evidence to support a complaint.

Steps for Protection in Title IX Cases

Students accused of a Title IX violation need to take great care with social media activity. Although it may seem like a good idea to delete social media accounts, this can be viewed as an attempt to destroy evidence. The ramifications could be particularly costly if the matter is investigated in conjunction with criminal proceedings.

While students should avoid the temptation to delete accounts, they also need to avoid the temptation to defend themselves on social media. It is amazing how seemingly simple words can be twisted and used against a respondent. At all costs, a respondent should not try to confront the complainant on social media. This could violate protective rules and even lead to criminal penalties if a no-contact order is in place.

It is far better to go silent on all forms of social media. Even with “privacy” settings in place, messages can be viewed by too many people.

An Attorney Can Help Manage Social Media Issues in a Title IX Case

Although the proceedings in a Title IX case on campus differ vastly from those most lawyers work with, attorneys who focus on student defense can help in many ways when students need to file or respond to a complaint.

The consequences of a Title IX case can impact your life for years to come. For a confidential consultation with a member of our experienced legal team to learn how we could help protect your rights and future opportunities, contact Duffy Law today.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.