Earlier this year, a public liberal arts college in New York seized a parody Twitter account belonging to a student, with the help of Twitter itself. It was an unprecedented move, and raises First Amendment issues as well as concerns about Twitter unilaterally handing over an account to a public entity.
New documents obtained by Motherboard using a freedom of information request explain in more detail what happened.
For a time, State University of New York-Geneseo sophomore Isaiah Kelly operated a parody of the school’s official Twitter account, but in January, Business Insider reported that Twitter granted control of the account to college administrator’s and then deleted. SUNY’s official Twitter account is @SUNYGeneseo. Kelly’s parody account was @SUNYGenseeo. It frequently poked fun at the school and the administration. When the school's library closed down because of asbestos, Kelly joked that the school would reopen the library and provide all students with surgical masks. “lol forgot to pay the power bill," Kelly tweeted from the account when a blackout hit campus.
According to emails between school administrators and Twitter, administrators at the school repeatedly reported the account for apparently violating Twitter’s terms of service. “I realize I have already reported this account once, however, they are tracking our changes on our official Twitter account and making those changes to their own account,” an email sent on January 14 from said. “For example, every time we change our header photo, they also change the header photo to the exact same photo and placement. We would really like this account suspended. Simply [having] FAKE at the end of the EXACT same bio as ours is not enough. Thank you.”
Twitter’s responses were automated replies, and they sent mixed messages. “We have reviewed the account and determined it is not complying with our policy on Parody, Newsfeed, Commentary, and Fan Accounts. We’ve let the account owner know, and provided them with instructions on how to comply with our policy,” one automated email from Twitter dated January 15 said.
A day later Twitter emailed SUNY admins to let them know that they’d reviewed the account and found it acceptable. “Our team has investigated the account and determined that it is not in violation of Twitter’s impersonation or trademark policy.”
SUNY administrators continued to email Twitter support about the account over the next few days, and at the end of January figured out a new tactic. Kelly had registered the account using his school email address. Because the administrators had the same @geneseo.edu addresses, they were able to use Twitter to seize control of the handle by claiming they were from the same “agency” as Kelly.
“I have once again reported this fake, impersonating account. Please shut it down. It is a student who does have an @geneseo.edu account but they are NOT authorized to use our logo, or our official bio lingo nor are they authorized to spread FALSE information about the college and it’s goings on,” administrators wrote in a January 28 email.
Once Twitter granted access to the parody account to the administrators, the school changed the password and activated 2-factor authentication. Then it deleted the account.
"Based on the FOIL documents, it looks like the university unmasked the owner of a parody Twitter account, effectively seized the account by switching out the associated email address and password, and then used those new credentials to shut down the account," Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project told Motherboard in an email. "This certainly raises a First Amendment issue, if not several. The university’s decision to unmask and shut down the account is like a prior restraint—which always bears a heavy presumption of unconstitutionality—on steroids."
By the time Twitter figured out it had made a mistake and gave Kelly back control of the account, it had already been deleted. He never received a notification that someone else had logged into his account because the administration had gotten Twitter to change the email on the account before logging into it. The new login-in notification went to school administrators, not to Kelly.
"We made a mistake and should have suspended @SUNYGenseeo for impersonation, which we've now done. For more information, please check out our impersonation policy," a Twitter spokesperson told Motherboard via email.
“Contrary to popular belief, we have a sense of humor (remember the time we taped a banana to the wall in the union and posted it on Instagram?),” SUNY tweeted at the time the account was deleted.
Repeated emails to Twitter support in a desperate attempt to pull down a student’s parody account don’t reflect a robust sense of humor or a working understanding of satire. SUNY did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Jason Koebler.