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Social justice

Social justice

Debbie Juniewicz ’90 March 12, 2019

Eyes forward, hands still, Thaddeus Hoffmeister is the picture of professionalism and poise in front of the camera as he’s about to be broadcast to an international audience. But, behind the confidence and competence, there are still a few well-disguised jitters when he goes “live.”

“It’s still very daunting to go on television, and it’s unnerving to watch yourself and listen to yourself,” said Hoffmeister, a professor of law and director of the Criminal Law Clinic at the UD School of Law. “You can’t give long-winded lawyer answers. You learn, over time, how to get your point across in two minutes or less. I still cringe a little bit when I watch, but I know I’m my own worst critic.”

Hoffmeister didn’t search out the spotlight, but he is becoming slightly more comfortable there as a go-to expert on one of today’s hottest topics, social media, especially as it pertains to the law. And while he is much more at home in the classroom or courtroom, the subject is too important to ignore.

“The impact of social media is something that can follow you around forever, so the sooner you understand it, the better,” he said.

As the understanding and applications of social media have become big business, social media have become more prominent in Hoffmeister’s business. The law professor — who recently published the book Social Media Law in a Nutshell and has a social media law blog — is regularly tapped by local, national and international media outlets. From weighing in on major national news to local issues, Hoffmeister is regularly asked to offer insight and information on this ever-changing field that touches each of our lives.

While Hoffmeister the professional knows all too well the perils and pitfalls of social media, Hoffmeister the parent also contends with the complex issue with two tech-savvy daughters, Ava, 10, and Zola, 13.

“At home, I try to have tech free days, when no one is supposed to be online,” Hoffmeister’s wife, Alea Brown-Hoffmeister, said. “He’s the worst offender,” she said of her husband.

“Outside of him sleeping, working out at the gym or teaching, he’s on the computer.”

In a nutshell

He isn’t alone. The Pew Research Center recently released its findings that social media sites have surpassed print newspapers as a news source for Americans. One-in-five adults in the United States say they often get news via social media — slightly higher than the 16 percent who often do so from print newspapers. Likes, tweets, shares and pins have become a part of everyday life with a broad range of implications.

“There are numerous benefits to social media, the difficulty is that it can also be an addiction,” Hoffmeister said. “And, for people who live for the likes, it really starts to impact their self-discovery.”

In Social Media Law in a Nutshell, written with Ryan Garcia of the University of Texas School of Law, the authors’ definition of social media includes more than Facebook and its 2.32 billion monthly active users:

“The social, in social media, is the ability for communities to be formed and individuals to exchange content around the information that is posted. Conversation is the seed that has transformed the Internet and the World Wide Web into social media. ... Social networking is a huge part of social media, but it is still just one part. Social media is any technology that allows online conversation.”

News sites that allow readers to leave comments, fundraising pages where donors can offer support, blogs and chat rooms are all included in the vast social media universe.

While Hoffmeister’s primary focus is the impact of social media on legal proceedings, the book also serves as a social media primer, outlining the four core functions: posting, hashtags, engagement and sharing.

1. Text posts, photos and videos are critical pieces of the social media universe and, often, of courtroom proceedings.

2. Hashtags enable people to search topics and contribute to those conversations. 

3. Engagement varies from one-click likes (Facebook) or hearts (Instagram) to verbose responses. Tagging connects another user to a particular post.

4. Sharing can propel a message initially seen by a few friends and family members to a viral post seen by millions around the world.

Those tweets, shares and likes are about more than popularity, they are about profits.

“Social media is the holy grail for advertising,” Hoffmeister said. “You have to understand how it works and how they make their money. You have to feed social media.”

Genie out of a bottle

If existence is so fleeting, does social media really matter? Absolutely.

An ill-thought-out Facebook post can result in the loss of a job. Online comments and threats can impact custody hearings. College admission decisions can be influenced by a prospective student’s social media presence.

“It’s common for admissions offices to look to see what kind of person they are letting into their university,” Hoffmeister said. “People are losing jobs because of ‘private’ or ‘personal’ activity. The challenge with social media is it’s really hard to separate that online persona from the person.”

Hoffmeister sees social media impacting several areas of law, primarily privacy law, employment law, criminal law and family law.

“I was always interested in juries and what I noticed, more and more, was the impact of social media on jurors,” he said. “And, since we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, we need to know how to address it.”

Jurors are instructed not to seek evidence or discuss the case. Unless they are sequestered, that is difficult to monitor aside from a blatant online post. But monitoring does take place. The social media presence of potential jurors is also investigated prior to seating a jury.

“In a way, the courtroom replicates society as a whole, and they’re going to look you up,” Hoffmeister said. “And you are probably going to be monitored if you’re serving on a jury.”

The jurors aren’t the only ones whose social media presence is dissected. Both plaintiffs and defendants can endure the same.

Information can be powerful and social media are increasingly impacting the amount and type of information people receive.

“Information is the new oil and there is money to be made there,” Hoffmeister said. “There used to be three places to get your news; today you can stay in whatever echo chamber you want. There’s no editing and no oversight. That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen. And with such an overload of information, it can be difficult to discern the good from the bad.”

As social media’s impact has increased, so too has Hoffmeister’s media appearances. He was tapped 12 times in September as an expert source for a variety of legal topics including the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing, said Shawn Robinson, associate director of UD news and communications.

“He’s been invaluable in helping share the School of Law’s expertise and reputation worldwide, often going above and beyond the call of duty,” Robinson said. “On multiple occasions, he’s done in-person morning show appearances in Cincinnati and Dayton less than two hours apart.”

Hoffmeister — whose initial apprehension had as much to do with tripping over cords in the studio as it did with worry about what to say — has a growing appreciation of experienced media personalities.

“I definitely have gained a greater respect for people who sound so smooth when they are on-air, especially when they are live,” he said, smiling. “I’m working on it.”

Robinson said that work is paying off.

“The feedback we get from media about Thaddeus is great,” Robinson said. “CTV, in Canada, had him on one Friday afternoon and liked him so much they had him on later that afternoon and then a couple more times that weekend.”

'People pay attention'

While Hoffmeister is frequently sought out for his legal and social media savvy, live shots are only a small part of his professional persona.

“My favorite job is being a law professor,” he said. “You get to research and write about things that really interest you and impact others who are interested in the law.”

His enthusiasm for the profession is noticed by his students, including Catherine Breault ’18, a December graduate who was in Hoffmeister’s Criminal Law class.

“He definitely teaches with a lot of energy and that energy is contagious, he makes people want to learn,” she said. “Everything he does is so natural and his tone is so engaging. He has a game-show-host voice; it makes people pay attention.”

From a French major at Morgan State University, Hoffmeister went on to earn a degree from Northeastern University Law School and a Master of Laws degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. After stints working on Capitol Hill and clerking for a federal judge, Hoffmeister joined the UD law school faculty in 2007. He teaches a variety of classes including Social Media Law, Internet of Things and the Law and Criminal Law.

“His classes on technology law are on the cutting edge, as is much of his scholarship,” said Julie Zink, professor of lawyering skills. “It is clear to anyone who knows him that he values viewpoints different from his own, and he encourages his students to do the same. Thaddeus treats everyone with respect.” 

Zink has been Hoffmeister’s colleague for more than a decade and has seen his ability in several capacities. As associate dean of academic affairs, Hoffmeister reviewed and approved budgets, hired adjunct faculty, was involved with curriculum planning, assigned teaching responsibilities, and counseled students on academic performance.

“He always approached problems in a calm manner and worked diligently to solve them,” she said. “I have had the pleasure of working on committees with Thaddeus several times in the course of the past decade. Each time, he dug in and delivered on whatever he was asked to do. His perspectives are insightful, such that his involvement in projects always contributes to better results.”

Breault saw firsthand Hoffmeister’s dedication to his students when she was working in the law clinic.

“He’s always in court with his students and he gives a lot of himself to the clinic,” she said. “But, he also lets us have the opportunity to grow as attorneys, and that’s incredibly valuable.

“He is the kind of professor that, 15 years down the road, you could call and consult with.”

Beyond campus, Hoffmeister — who enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 17 years old — continues to serve his country as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army National Guard. He spends one weekend a month representing soldiers whom the government has taken action against. In his civilian capacity, he serves as an acting municipal court judge and gives lectures around the country.

Digital ed

For all his social media acumen, Hoffmeister frequently defers to his wife when it comes to a social media strategy at home.

“I’m the sheriff,” Brown-Hoffmeister said, smiling. “Our youngest daughter won’t get a phone until she is in the eighth grade. And, with our oldest, I have explained the long-term repercussions of social media use and the importance of limiting her social footprint.”

Zola is not permitted to comment online and mom has the ability to look at her texts and emails — much to her daughter’s dismay.

“When we first got her a phone, I naively thought it would be used mostly to communicate with us,” Brown-Hoffmeister said. “What I soon realized was how much information was at her fingertips.”

That revelation led to a variety of Hoffmeister household rules including technology time limits. The dinner table is a designated no computer and no phone zone — although dad sometimes struggles with this rule even more than his daughters.

“His computer is like a security blanket,” Brown-Hoffmeister said.

Hoffmeister admits that he struggles with a need to be constantly connected.

“We are expected to give instant responses and we have come to expect instant updates, and I’m as guilty as anyone,” he said.

While he admits his own social media self-control could be strengthened, Hoffmeister’s social media savvy and parenting insights might result in a curriculum change in his children’s school district.

“I’m pushing for the idea of having digital ed, much like they have sex ed,” he explained. “These kids need to know how to use technology appropriately. Maybe they can even teach their parents something.”

In the workplace as well as at home, Hoffmeister has discovered that social media reset the rules on how we communicate and interact.

“There are both positives and negatives to this new medium, some we know and some we have yet to learn,” he said. “Those who turn their back on social media do so at their own peril and risk being left behind. On the other hand, those who spend every waking moment sharing their life will be consumed by social media. The key is maintaining proper balance.” 

7 things every digital denizen should know by Thaddeus Hoffmeister   

1. Set privacy settings to the highest level.

2. Be wary of third-party apps.

3. Similar to “sex ed,” teach your children “digital ed.”

4. Be aware that people act differently online, including impersonating others.

5. Even anonymous content can be traced back to you.

6. Online content has the potential to reach billions and live forever.

7. Use social media responsibly. Ask yourself, do I want this content to be around five, 10, 15 years from now? What if every phone call I ever made was somehow memorialized and available to the public?