I’m not sure what to think about this New York Times article. It recounts tragic events at the University of Mary Washington. A female student there was murdered following a controversy involving the rugby team and some vile threats on the site Yik Yak app. The Yik Yak app allows people to create and view discussion threads within a 5 mile radius. And it’s anonymous. The proximity feature and the anonymity feature make it popular on college campuses.
And unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to use Yik Yak to make incredibly demeaning, offensive comments. In the Mary Washington situation, the comments escalated to threats and one of the targets of the threats was murdered.
Even before the murder, students at Mary Washington were demanding that the university close down Yik Yak on campus, and ban the service from U.M.W.'s Wi-Fi. Debra Katz, a lawyer involved in the matter is quoted in the New York Times article saying “Universities wouldn’t allow students to run around with megaphones and chant racist and sexist and horrible things if it was affecting the environment for other students. Why don’t they do anything when it’s happening via cyberspace? In some respects, it’s more damaging.”
The linked article seems sympathetic to the notion that Yik Yak is the problem. The concluding sentence of the article says: “Ms. Katz said she was confident that an ‘enforcement action’ would be brought against the university. Let’s hope that is so, and that this is the beginning of the end for Yik Yak.”
I am sympathetic to the students harmed by the actions of the idiots who misuse the app. But isn’t the problem the idiots? If those same idiots blanketed the campus with hand-made flyers would there be a demand to ban Sharpies? I am truly not trying to be flip about this. And I suppose the hyper local/anonymous features of Yik Yak invite abuse. But those same features could be very valuable. In a campus emergency, those features – including anonymity – could potentially alert first responders to trouble areas. And students who may want to talk about intensely personal issues – sexual orientation or gender identification – my appreciate the ability to communicate with others in close proximity without disclosing their identities.
My point is, not only would the First Amendment pose a huge obstacle to the proposed “solutions” here, but as a matter of policy, they fail as well.