Yik Yak and similar websites provide forums for students and faculty to post thoughts and comments anonymously. Although such websites are intended to facilitate honest discussion, the shield of anonymity creates problems for colleges and universities. For example, an individual (or activist group) may hijack a website like Yik Yak to post threats of violence against the campus community. If such threats are made, should the institution issue a “timely warning” under the Clery Act? Can the institution uncover the identity of an anonymous poster so that appropriate legal or disciplinary action can be taken?
Any time a college or university receives an anonymous threat against its campus, the first course of action should, of course, be geared toward identifying the possible ways in which the institution can protect the community from the threat. That includes issuing a “timely warning” unless there is a clear basis for determining that the threat is not serious or no longer a danger to students and employees. The warning should provide the essential elements of the threat so that students and employees can take appropriate measures to protect themselves. The warning need not, and probably should not, include details of investigative measures being taken so that law enforcement efforts are not compromised. An update to the timely warning should be issued as new information is available, including if it is subsequently determined that the threat was unfounded or has passed.
Resources to determine the identity of an anonymous poster
Even if the website does not require the poster to create a user profile, a post will contain digital fingerprints that can be used to discover the identity of the person or group behind the post. The fingerprints will include information such as an IP address, time and date stamp, and GPS coordinates. The institution can use the information to locate and determine the identity of the poster. Websites like Yik Yak make it difficult to obtain information about posts, but it’s not impossible.
- Collaboration with local law enforcement: Anonymous websites will usually cooperate with requests from your campus police department or local law enforcement agencies. Yik Yak’s specific procedures can be viewed here: Yik Yak Law Enforcement Guidelines. Collaboration with your campus police department or local law enforcement agencies can be an effective way to uncover the identity of an anonymous poster.
- Civil subpoena: There are, however, times that an institution will want to discover the identity of an anonymous poster independent of law enforcement action. Yik Yak and similar websites will not likely volunteer information based on a request from the institution, but they will be required to respond to a lawfully issued subpoena.
There are several methods by which an institution can obtain a subpoena, but one approach to consider is filing a “John Doe” lawsuit. A “John Doe” lawsuit allows the institution to sue a fictitious defendant, “John Doe,” then name the actual party to the lawsuit once his/her/its identity is discovered. A “John Doe” lawsuit can be coupled with a motion to conduct expedited discovery, which would include the ability to issue a subpoena. The institution must, of course, have a valid cause of action against the poster, but, in the context of threatened violence, a claim for tortious interference or business interruption will almost certainly exist.
What this means for you
Consider how your institution will respond to an anonymous threat before it occurs. Having a well-designed plan in place will help your institution make decisive decisions that will provide maximum protection to your campus community.