State and national groups call for repeal of regents’ social media policy

Scrambling as faculty leave for the holidays, some at Kansas public universities have taken action protesting the social media policy passed by the Kansas Board of Regents last week.

The Regents approved the policy last Wednesday partly as a response to the anti-NRA tweet by Kansas University journalism professor David Guth. It allows university heads to fire faculty and staff who post messages on social media that conflict with the institution’s best interests and efficient operations.

Philip Nel, a Kansas State distinguished professor of English, helped write a letter addressed to the regents calling for the immediate repeal of the policy. “By revoking the faculty and staff’s right to freedom of speech, the new social media policy is an affront to academic freedom and academic excellence,” it stated.

The letter was signed by more than 40 distinguished K-State professors. In an interview Nel said every faculty member who responded had signed the letter, and even more faculty members, who had been traveling or on vacation, had responded later wanting their names put on the letter. “Every faculty member with which I’ve spoken has expressed the same outrage I have,” Nel said.

Along with concerns about academic freedom, the letter noted concerns that the social media policy could undermine the university’s strategic plan by “driving away both potential hires and current faculty.”

Another public letter, issued by the Kansas conference of the American Association of University Professors, also called on the regents to immediately withdraw the policy “before any more reputational damage is done to the state’s otherwise excellent regents institutions.”

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a KU professor of aerospace engineering and president of the Kansas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, helped write the letter with more than a dozen others. Barrett-Gonzalez said he has heard from faculty members who are already changing their lesson plans out of concern that social media they use in classes could make them liable under the policy.

KU Faculty Senate President Christopher Steadham said he has also heard from faculty members worried about social media they use in their classes. “More and more aspects of a faculty member’s job is online now,” he said. “People are worried about it.”

Although nothing has materialized yet, Steadham said the policy is “shaping up to be something fairly major” on the senate’s spring agenda.

The national AAUP also published a statement condemning the policy as a “gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom that have been the cornerstone of American higher education for nearly a century.”

The AAUP wrote that the policy “makes a mockery of faculty members’ rights to speak as public citizens on matters of public concern” and cited phrasing in the new rules that allow for dismissal if an employee’s social media speech impairs “discipline” or “harmony” within the university.

The national Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, also chimed in on the new policy. The FIRE letter criticized the social media rules on legal grounds, arguing that the Supreme Court has described academic freedom as a special consideration in First Amendment issues, and also challenging the “vagueness” of the rules as a potential threat to faculty’s First Amendment rights.

Regents Chairman Fred Logan, the addressee on the FIRE letter, said he had not read it or the others released in recent days. But he disagreed with the characterization of the policy as a violation of academic freedom.

“I think the policy was very carefully drawn to protect both First Amendment rights and academic freedom,” he said, but it also “recognized a duty to the employer.”

Logan said the regents are open to additional feedback on the policy. “My view is that any policy that the board adopts is always the subject of additional conversation,” he said.

“I think we’re open to changing any policy.”