Thursday, 25 October 2012

Guest Post: Should Law Students Sit on the Fence or Editorialise Their Tweets?

This is the second guest blog from Pat Ellis who asks: is it OK for law students to let their partisan political voice free on Twitter?

Pat Ellis of Michigan State School of Law

Well, another debate season has come and gone. For the next few hours, days, and weeks, the “Twitterverse” will be abuzz with quotes and opinions, accusations and commentary about the debates and the presidential candidates.  Some of these 140-character political manifestos will be thoughtful, but most will likely be dull reiterations of the same pundit-points made millions of times before.  Regardless, Twitter’s impact and importance will be on full display in the coming weeks, culminating in the presidential election and an inevitable, partisan Tweetsplosion.

So now, I have a question.  This is a question that comes from a lack of experience both on Twitter and in the legal profession. Should a law student and aspiring attorney participate in the political discussion on Twitter?

Historically, lawyers have always had a special and prominent role in political activism.  It seems, to me, that activism and advocacy go hand-in-hand. During the three debates between the presidential candidates, I found myself scanning Twitter as I listened to their remarks.  President Obama and Governor Romney are just seconds ahead of the tsunami of Tweets that scrutinize everything they say, every gesture they make, and every mistake they are perceived to make.  I can’t imagine that pressure.

So there I am, watching my feed, watching the candidates, taking it all in, when suddenly, I am seized by the mob mentality.  I am not sure what set it off, but I cannot help myself . . . I RT five people, I angrily reply to Michelle Fields (knowing she doesn’t care), I hurl an original Tweet into space (hoping desperately for a favorite, a RT, or a response), and I #hashtag #everything!

Then, the debate concludes and I feel tired – tweeted out – and I am left thinking the same thing: is it acceptable for me to use Twitter as an outlet for my political stance? Everyone is doing it . . . but, as my mom often reminds me: if everyone was jumping off a bridge would you do it?  Maybe I would!  At the end of the day, I do not really know if tweeting politics is an acceptable practice for law students.  On one hand, it allows me to make and strengthen connections with some of my fellow tweeters and exercise my voice - my freedom of speech! On the other hand, maybe tweeting politics will tarnish my Twitter-reputation with other followers; maybe even potential employers.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney are former Harvard law students.  I wonder if they would have tweeted politics during their time in law school (@BarryO? @MoneyMitt?).  It seems hard to think that they would have, especially since both men likely had political ambitions since their infancy not worth ruining on Twitter.  Then again, they studied law in a different time and now using social media seems more acceptable, if not the norm.  In fact, people without any social media presence are now perceived as somewhat, to put it nicely, “out-of-touch.”  It would be fascinating to read the tweets of both men (when the tweets were their own and not the product of a PR guru or trusted intern) and see how, if at all, their ideologies have changed and what they had to say (in 140 characters) about the issues that they pondered.  And then I wonder, would they have to answer for tweets that are contrary to their beliefs today?  Would they have to explain their tweets from law school?

What about future judges; future Supreme Court nominees?  Perhaps it would be prudent for judicial hopefuls to start establishing a conservative or progressive track record now via Twitter (by the way, it is really fun to imagine what the Supreme Court Justices would tweet, given the chance – although I doubt Justice Thomas would tweet much of anything).

Ultimately, the question is: will I have to answer for my tweets from law school?  The answer, for me, is yes – better safe than sorry. That being said, I do not believe that law students should completely abstain from political expression on Twitter.  Community participation and advocacy are two important facets of the lawyer’s identity. I do, however, believe that law students should be cognizant that everything they tweet could come back to haunt them, especially if they choose to pursue a path in politics.  Therefore, if law students choose to exercise their political voice on Twitter, they should do so in a thoughtful way.  You never know what you may have to answer for down the line; especially if you are on a line to Washington. Regardless, this is simply another way Twitter and other social media platforms are not only changing the way we communicate, but also the repercussions of what we communicate.

And now, I am going to tweet some stuff about “horses and bayonets” and “binders full of women” #debates!       

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