A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke, and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. James 3:5-6 (The Message)

James, the brother of Jesus, offered timeless advice concerning the impact of words and their uncontrollable ramifications. The wisdom of above-quoted verses is particularly amplified in our times of instant and global communication. Although divinely inspired in his writing, James likely did not contemplate things such as email, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Instagram and similar communication mediums. But if he were commenting on the divisiveness, animosity, and violence that characterize current circumstances, he may very well begin with “As I was saying….”

Social media plays an important role at Samford University and in the personal lives of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and almost everyone associated with the university. It is an incredibly powerful communication tool through which tremendous good can be accomplished. For instance, many of the social changes witnessed in recent months have to some degree been created or accelerated by social media. Unfortunately, the internet also creates a false sense of anonymity that causes many people to lose all sense of decency and responsibility for the things they share electronically. Significant harm can be inflicted on undeserving targets when false or malicious information is created or perpetuated online. Once misinformation is “out there,” it is almost impossible to limit its spread.

A case in point occurred at Samford in October of 2019, when a student, Molly Akin was photographed after she had an unfortunate experience with a self-tanning product. The photograph was posted by another person in a private Snapchat post with the caption “We changing races tonight!!” If Ms. Akin had actually created or knowingly contributed to the Snapchat post, she would have necessarily borne some responsibility for the inappropriate item. Many people presupposed that she was complicit, but those assumptions were incorrect.

The university promptly investigated this incident by interviewing Ms. Akin and other students, and by collecting and reviewing social media posts, text messages and other information obtained from multiple sources. The investigation disclosed no information indicating that Ms. Akin either encouraged or participated in creating, posting or sharing the captioned photograph. She was therefore not subject to any disciplinary proceedings or disciplinary actions. Another student (not Ms. Akin), was found to be responsible for violating the university student conduct code and was disciplined. I am sharing this story, with the permission of Molly Akin and her family, because it offers several important lessons for the Samford community.

First, it serves as a poignant reminder that things are not always as they seem, particularly on the internet. A student became the subject of ridicule and accusations that had no basis in fact. Any university statement indicating that Ms. Akin bore responsibility for the captioned Snapchat post was erroneous. I am pleased to provide this clarification on behalf of Samford.

Second, before posting, forwarding or even “liking” a social media item, make an effort to determine if it is true and if your engagement is necessary or appropriate. The laws regarding defamation do not turn your subjective intent or an explanation that you were just trying to be clever, nor do they make a tidy distinction between the original author of a libelous statement and those who “just” perpetuate it. And simply because a statement is first shared “privately” is no guarantee that people in every continent will not be reading it within 24 hours.

Third, never engage in harassing or hateful online speech. Such conduct is not only prohibited for students and employees by university policies; it is the antithesis of what Samford is about. Everyone is entitled to respect and courtesy, irrespective of their sex, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or politics. The Core Values of Samford call us to appreciate diverse cultures and convictions – face-to-face, online or otherwise. This upcoming academic year will likely be a time in which there will be difficult public discussions on a variety of subjects in which people are emotionally invested. These exchanges will be online and (hopefully soon) in person. Just as everyone at Samford has responsibility for themselves and others relative to COVID-19 (think face coverings and social distancing), we should likewise be deliberate and wise in considering the personal and community implications of our online speech.

Before offering information for online consumption, thoughtfully protect yourself from potential legal consequences. As an active Rotarian, I’ve found the Rotary Four-Way Test offers an effective evaluation tool for social media engagement: (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? These principles will not be the cultural norm, but I think they can be reasonable expectations (and good legal advice) for Samford students, employees and alumni.

If you are interested in discussing the laws governing libel, slander, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress, please let me know. Likewise, I’ll welcome conversations about important topics such as racial justice, sex discrimination and religious liberty if you are so inclined. All of these issues are of great importance to Samford and our country. We should therefore commit ourselves to civil discourse and constructive actions to bring about positive changes. As soon as COVID-19 allows, I can meet for coffee and we can enjoy some great conversations about these matters. But as we begin a new school year, let’s inspire our students and each other to share respect, friendship, and encouragement, practice persuasion rather than aggression, let our words be reflections of our character and convictions, and stay within the boundaries of legally permissible speech.

W. Clark Watson, General Counsel

This article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Inside Samford, the university’s employee newsletter.