Eagle editorial: Regents need to revisit social-media policy

12/27/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:20 AM

It’s understandable that the Kansas Board of Regents wanted to create a social-media policy for the state’s public universities. But the new policy is both so vague and severe that it could chill the free exchange of ideas, which is crucial to higher education.

The regents need to revisit the policy, getting input from faculty and administrative leaders.

The new policy gives the chief executive at each university the authority to suspend or fire any faculty or staff member who improperly uses social media, such as in posts on blogs, Facebook or Twitter. Examples of improper use include communications that incite violence or disclose student information or research data.

Where the policy particularly overreaches is that improper communications can include those that are “contrary to the best interest of the university,” that impair “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” or that have “a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.” That could include just about anything.

The regents have stressed that it will be up to the universities to determine how they enforce the policy, and that the universities will have a grievance process to appeal any employment decision. Though that may be somewhat reassuring for universities that have presidents who value free speech and faculty rights, it is still arbitrary and ambiguous.

Not surprisingly, the policy has been strongly criticized at the universities and in the national media. More than 40 Kansas State University professors signed a joint letter to the regents arguing that the new policy is “an affront to academic freedom and academic excellence” and could drive “away both potential hires and current faculty.” The American Association of University Professors complained that professors could be fired if they disagree with university policies or their colleagues online.

The regents developed the policy after an offensive tweet in September by University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth about the Washington Navy Yard shooting. The regents and KU were under pressure from some state lawmakers to take strong action against Guth.

But when a policy is rushed into place or comes in response to one particular incident, it often isn’t vetted thoroughly and goes too far. That appears the case with this policy.

What’s more, the regents were warned before they approved the new policy earlier this month. Faculty representatives urged the board to postpone the vote and allow faculty members to provide input. KU provost Jeff Vitter cautioned that the policy would be scrutinized nationally.

“You are potentially walking into a dangerous situation,” Vitter said.

The regents should have listened. Now they need to clean up the mess.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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