Bumping up against the boundaries of free speech

yik yakSocial media app Yik Yak encourages college students to find their own herd. Some have done a lot more.

BY GREGORY ZELLER

Sometimes, there’s a thin line between criminality and the $300 million startup.

Make that razor-thin in the case of the anonymous messaging service Yik Yak, and according to some, the company and its product have already crossed the line. The social messaging app designed for hyper-local engagement – service is limited to a 1.5-mile radius from a particular local-service node – has been banned from several college campuses across the country, following reported cases of cyber-bullying, one attempt to organize a gang rape at a campus women’s center and various other “yaks” with racist and homophobic content.

The controversy skirts cherished freedom-of-speech rights and belies a true made-in-America success story. Founded in 2013 by two Furman University alums, Atlanta-based Yik Yak scored $1.5 million in financing from a group of Georgia-based investors. Just two months later, those investors upped their ante, joined by famed venture capitalist Tim Draper. Within months of its launch, the company had over $10 million in VC to play with, and it was just getting started.

In November 2014, top-tier Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sequoia Capital led a $62 million round of equity financing. Just under two years old, Yik Yak – selected by Internet users as the Fastest Rising Startup at February’s eighth-annual TechCrunch Crunchies Awards – is now valued close to $300 million.

The concept is simple: Take a social-messaging service like Snapchat – itself a previous winner of the Fastest Rising Startup Award – localize it and remove the user profiles. Ostensibly designed for the college crowd and older, the downloaded app also allows members of each digital forum to “down vote” a particular comment. If a post gets enough thumbs-down – like Caesar deciding the fate of a wounded gladiator or Ebert condemning a Michael Bay movie – it’s automatically zapped away.

The idea of a virtual bulletin board for specific user groups – say, a high school’s student body or the denizens of a corporate park – has obvious appeal. But the anonymity factor has engendered numerous problems, including a bomb threat that locked down a Southern California high school, felony charges for two University of Southern Mississippi students who made physical threats through the app and the merciless lambasting of a Chicago high school rape victim.

Last fall, the student government at Emory University, located in Yik Yak’s own hometown, passed a resolution denouncing the app as “a platform for hate speech.”

And the Yak-lash isn’t limited to Emory. It’s virtually impossible to prevent students from downloading an app on their smartphones through private cell-phone providers, but many schools have taken the symbolic steps of denouncing the app or booting it from school-based servers, making it more difficult to establish those local-service nodes.

Now, schools across New York are starting to strike Yak. Utica College in Oneida County recently banned the app from the college’s Internet servers, and while no Long Island college has yet enforced an outright ban, several are considering the possibility. The Student Government Association at Adelphi University, in fact, recently passed a resolution demanding the school do just that.

An official Adelphi statement notes only that the university “has convened a task force composed of students, faculty and administrators to review university policies regarding use of the mobile application Yik Yak on the university’s wireless networks.”

While no Yik Yak-related incidents have been reported on Adelphi’s Garden City campus, Student Government Association President Julianna Claase told InnovateLI that the Yik Yak debate speaks directly to the mindset of university students on issues ranging from free speech to school pride.

“Determining how Adelphi students feel about our campus climate is at the very core of the issues surrounding Yik Yak,” Claase said.

And although the university’s student government did pass that ban-the-Yak resolution, the president noted that student feedback following that vote led the SGA to “revisit the issue with a closer lens on campus climate.”

In short, according to Claase, the Yik Yak debate extends beyond Yik Yak.

“We will be surveying the student body to tap into how students really feel about diversity, tolerance and acceptance,” she said. “We are working closely with a student-led task force to interview students about what being a Panther means to them.”

Other Island colleges and universities are in a similar position, weighing sacrosanct freedom-of-speech rights against the very real threat of cyber-bullying, or worse, in the social media age. Howard Schneider, founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, suggested Yik Yak simply shines a fresh light on “issues we’ve been dealing with in this country for the last 200 years.”

“On one hand, I think we’re in uncharted territory because of the immediacy and obtrusiveness of digital media,” Schneider said. “But on the other hand, we’re really dealing with the same old issue: Where are the boundaries of free speech?”

Stony Brook University administrators confirmed that Yik Yak has not been banned on the SBU campus, and according to a university spokesperson there are no plans to do so. A spokeswoman for St. Joseph’s College’s Patchogue campus said that college also has no official policy regarding the use of Yik Yak on campus, but “may consider one in the near future.”

A Hofstra University spokeswoman said the school isn’t blocking the use of Yik Yak either, noting “freedom of speech is in the Constitution.”

Schneider, for one, wouldn’t disagree – in fact, he’d prefer schools not ban Yik Yak at all.

“My bias extend to the rights of free speech and free expression as much as possible,” he said. “I’d rather live with the possibility of potential abuse than begin down the road of censorship, which is such a slippery slope and so antithetical to what we believe.”

That said, even Schneider acknowledges that free speech has limits. “I think the boundaries are pretty clear,” the dean noted. “Free speech stops when you put people in imminent danger. That’s where society needs to draw the line.”

The question, therefore, becomes where is that line when it comes to social media? And the best answer, according to Schneider, may be within the numerous laws regarding online harassment and threats making their way onto federal and state books.

But banning Yik Yak or any other social media, he added, just isn’t the American way.

“We have to resist going down that road, unless there’s a red line crossed where you’re putting people in real danger,” Schneider said. “Short of that red line, I think we have to be as tolerant as we can be, even when we get angry, even when it’s free speech we don’t like.”