Barbara Shelly: Social-media policy threatens free speech

01/02/2014 12:00 AM

12/31/2013 5:19 PM

The campuses of Kansas’ universities are quiet, with students and faculty scattered on winter break. The grounds might seem restful, but that would be an illusion.

Out there on the frigid turf, where enlightenment struggles to shine in a state not always receptive to progressive ideals, another Kansas brouhaha is building. As with the notorious dustups of the past, this one can drag the state’s standing nowhere but down.

On Dec. 18, the governing board for the states’ higher education system decreed that campus officials can discipline or fire employees, including tenured professors, for statements they make on social media.

With that move, Kansas became the first state to endanger the career of an academic because of something expressed in a tweet, blog post or Facebook entry.

The nine-member Board of Regents would not consider itself on a par with the State Board of Education that, a few years ago, demanded that the teaching of the science of evolution should be watered down in Kansas elementary and secondary schools. But the regents’ move is just as disturbing. It stifles free speech where original thinking and brave dialogue are most essential.

The repressive policy is an overreaction to an overreaction.

A University of Kansas professor, David Guth, stupidly fired off an overwrought tweet after a mass shooting in September. The tweet invited outrage from supporters of the National Rifle Association, of which Guth had written, “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”

Among the aggrieved were some Kansas legislators, who called for Guth to be fired and hinted that funding for the state’s flagship university could be at risk. Guth was temporarily suspended.

Out of that uproar comes a revision to the Board of Regents policy manual, stating that executives of Kansas’ six universities may suspend or terminate any employee for “improper use of social media.”

That includes acting “contrary to the best interests of the university,” and having “a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”

A lot of things can be interpreted as contrary to the interests of a Kansas university these days. Criticizing state legislators, evaluating their bad tax policies and supporting abortion services come to mind. And since when is it a state board’s business to worry about whether a tweet might offend a college professor’s colleague?

In a show of utter arrogance and disrespect, the regents adopted their policy without talking to university leaders or faculty. They did consult with lawyers, of course, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who stamped it constitutional. But a letter to the regents from a First Amendment group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sets out a long list of reasons why it may not be.

Fred Logan, the Board of Regents chairman, has sent out confusing signals. He describes the policy as necessary and constitutionally sound. But he also said he is open to revisions. This week he called for a group of representatives from the universities to review the policy and make recommendations for possible changes by April.

The policy needs to be scrapped, not tweaked.

The regents, in their rush to atone for Guth’s sins, didn’t take enough time or care to understand that the world of ideas has fundamentally changed. An unedited, round-the-clock dialogue is taking place online, and academics should both lead and learn from it. But they can’t do that if they are being squelched by a repressive force.

Right now the Board of Regents is that force. And that is a stain upon Kansas.

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