A screen grab from the monitoring interface of the UDiligence program at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

The University of Maryland is telling its 700-plus student athletes to think before they Tweet.

In a five-page guideline issued this semester, the university for the first time is setting ground rules for student athletes using Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. They are, in short, to think twice before using slurs about race, religion or sexual orientation, to follow NCAA rules, and to monitor comments for offensive language.

“Never compromise your personal reputation and integrity — or that of your team and university — through your use of social media technologies,” the guidelines say.

Maryland is part of a growing number of universities trying to get a handle on the free-wheeling world of online speech that’s landed some colleges in hot water (perhaps most notably the University of North Carolina, which is going before the NCAA on Oct. 28 to face allegations involving improper gifts, travel and free tutoring given to football players — the result of an investigation reportedly triggered by Tweets from a former UNC football star).

Now stepping into the fray are entrepreneurs who spy a business opportunity in tracking the social media chatter of college athletes. A crop of private companies that monitor the Twitter and Facebook accounts of student athletes have already signed more than two dozen collegiate powerhouses, including Louisville, Lousiana State University and Texas A&M. They’re also courting local universities, pitching their services for as little as $350 a year.

Among the new services is UDiligence, the Indiana-based business founded in 2008 by former Hill staffer Kevin Long, who’s pitching Towson University on the prospect of monitoring more than 500 student athletes.

Towson’s athletics director Mike Waddell said the school is “still pondering” but is not sold on UDiligence quite yet. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore also considered retaining the company, but ultimately passed because of the potential cost.

UDiligence and Varsity Monitor, a similar New Jersey-based company launched in March, have in the last few months been going after Maryland (which says it has no immediate plans to hire an outside firm). A third company, Birmingham-based Centrix Social, opened last year and markets to universities in the South.

Maryland, which currently monitors athletes’ social media activity through an internal compliance office, admits trying to keep track of athletes from 27 sports is “a monster undertaking,” said senior associate athletics director Dan Trump.

The NCAA has rules about the use of social media in recruiting but it does not have rules requiring schools to monitor athletes’ social media activity. Still, an NCAA spokesman said, “it would be in the best interest of an institution to monitor the activity of their personnel and student athletes.”

‘It’s not about Big Brother’

Neither Varsity Monitor nor UDiligence, which are private, disclosed revenue figures. But Long said UDiligence monitors about 7,000 students athletes, and the company earns up to 4 cents per athlete per day. Fees are based on school size: Division III schools start at $350 per team; Division II at $500 and Division I at $1,500.

Schools are essentially paying for a software program that scans athletes’ Tweets, Facebook posts and other social media activity 24 hours a day. The program zeroes in on keywords (popular ones include expletives, brands of alcohol, drinking games, opponents’ names and common misspellings of racial profanities) and sends each athlete and coach or administrator an e-mail alert when a questionable post has been published. Coaches or administrators can log in with a username and password to see a list of student, and each student’s “threat level” — green for low, orange for medium and red for high — and a link or screen shot of the comment that set off red flags.

In order to have their accounts monitored, students must agree to the software program’s terms of use and install applications on each of their social media accounts.

Long, of UDiligence, said the point isn’t to play “gotcha” with students.

“It’s not about Big Brother,” said Long, a former press secretary for Rep. Dan Burton and staffer for the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. “We’re about helping the athletes protect their reputation in the long term.”

But some legal experts say these companies and the schools that hire them run the risk of violating students’ free speech and privacy rights, and could become targets for legal complaints.

The businesses are “relabeling spying as reputation management and are selling their services to athletic departments who may not fully understand the legal implications,” said Brad Shear, a Bethesda attorney who specializes in social media law.

Beyond free speech and right to privacy issues, schools could even open themselves to Title IX claims if they don’t treat all teams equally, he added.

Long said UDiligence monitors both public and protected accounts, but doesn’t ask for usernames or passwords. Because the program can only be activated with the students’ express consent, “at the point they have given that consent, from our perspective, there’s no privacy violation at all,” he said.