TOPEKA — A revised social media policy approved by the Kansas Board of Regents allows a university to suspend or fire an employee for making statements on social media that are “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”
The policy makes statements in support of academic freedom and free speech but allows a university’s chief executive officer to take disciplinary actions against faculty members for social media posts that could incite violence, disclose confidential information or otherwise damage the university.
Free speech advocates and university professors opposed to the policy say it lacks specificity and could have a chilling effect on speech at universities.
“The problem is it’s hard to know what it means,” said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a professor of education at the University of Kansas, who attended the meeting. “And that’s why it has the chilling effect.”
Wolf-Wendel said part of the purpose of education is to introduce people to uncomfortable ideas and spark debate, but that this inhibits that.
Professors and university students from around the state attended the meeting, wearing red stickers that said “FREE SPEECH” in an attempt to convince the board to vote down the policy. But it was approved without a dissenting vote after a short discussion.
The board first adopted a social media policy in December in response to controversy surrounding a tweet made by David Guth, an associated professor of journalism at KU, about September’s shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington
Guth had tweeted “blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”
Fred Logan, a member of the board, contended that the revised policy, which states that universities must follow the principle of academic freedom when enforcing it, would actually strengthen free speech at regents universities.
“That may sound funny. But if you look at our policy manual, there’s really not much in there about that. This will be the strongest and most explicit statement in support of academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual,” Logan said.
Helen Van Etten, a member of the board, said the policy is not intended to restrain anyone’s academic freedom but to help universities protect their brand.
“I think we will see more and more other universities start to have these same policies. …We don’t want to damage their brand and we don’t also want the universities to impair their academic freedom either. So there’s a happy medium here,” she said.
The attorney general’s office reviewed the policy and instructed the board that it did not violate the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
But even the revised policy fails to protect free speech, say the ACLU of Kansas and the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that university professors should be able to speak freely, said Will Creeley, FIRE’s legal director. He added that should include 140 characters on Twitter just as much an academic essay.
“The cure here is the worse than the disease. You’ve got a controversial tweet that was roundly condemned by folks on either side of the debate. In other words, the system worked. Speech that offended folks was answered with more speech,” he said.
Sierra Hale, a graduate student studying English at Kansas State University, said she was worried that the policy will intimidate instructors from discussing controversial issues with students.
“I know that it’s social media, but it seems like it’s somewhat a slippery slope if there’s any sort of suggestion of we’re regulating what faculty can believe and what they can say, especially because students interact with social media all the time,” Hale said. “I feel it does translate into the classroom.”
Matthew Cecil, director of the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, took a nuanced view of the policy. He said he was confident that President John Bardo would apply it in a way that respects academic freedom, but agreed it would be open to interpretation at each university.
“Policies are just words on paper. It depends on how someone reads that and applies that in practice,” Cecil said in a phone call.
He also said that as a WSU faculty member he’s aware that he’s representing the school and Kansas taxpayers when he uses social media. He said the uproar over Guth’s tweet offers a learning an opportunity for students.
“I told my students this is a good learning opportunity for everybody to think carefully about what social media is, what the potential of social media is and how you need to be very careful and thoughtful about how to communicate publicly that way,” he said.