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A memo from a Kansas University administrator asking faculty and staff to "check in" before speaking with lawmakers caught the eye of a national group and raised concerns among some faculty who worried it was an effort to control their speech.
A December statement from the American Association of University Professors that rebuked the Kansas Board of Regents' new social media policy also highlighted the memo and suggested future emails from faculty to elected officials could become subject to the regents policy.
The memo was a Dec. 5 email from Tim Caboni, KU vice chancellor of public affairs, to faculty and staff instructing them to speak with the public affairs office before "engaging with an elected or appointed government official on university business."
Caboni said the memo was a typical statement sent out to state employees subject to university policies and laws around lobbying.
AAUP also mentioned reports that KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter "has in the past warned some faculty members not to criticize the governor for fear it might hurt the university." Vitter could not be reached for comment.
The line between lobbying and speech
Because KU employs its own lobbyists at the state and federal level, the university is subject to federal lobbying disclosure laws. University policy requires that faculty and staff provide an account of all time and money spent on lobbying on behalf of KU.
The policy also states explicitly that faculty and staff can freely communicate with officials as citizens, so long as they don't do so using state equipment, university stationary or email, or do not convey official positions on behalf of KU.
"On one side, we as private citizens should have unfettered access to let our opinions be known in the halls of government. That's our right as citizens, but not as state employees," said Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a KU associate professor of aerospace engineering and president of the Kansas conference of the AAUP.
"The verbiage that was written in Tim Caboni's communication was so broad and so sweeping, it didn't make the distinction between communication as a private citizen and as a state employee," Barrett-Gonzalez said.
Caboni said he has heard no "outcry" and was surprised that the AAUP mentioned the email. "It has nothing to do with how one engages democratically in one's private life," he said. "We encourage people to be active participants in that process."
Yet the email offered no explanation on the difference between private speech and official speech or lobbying. Nor did it say that university employees are free to engage lawmakers as citizens without checking in with public affairs, as university policy states.
Caboni said he has not been contacted by anyone confused by the message into thinking they needed to check in about private speech to lawmakers.
For those that do check in with his office, Caboni said the conversation is typically "really informal."
The goal for Caboni is to make sure he is aware of all advocacy efforts relating to the university. It's also to ensure that "when we're advocating for institutional priorities, we speak with one voice and we're on the same page," he said.
After reading the email, Gerald Mikkelson, a KU professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, decided to reach out to Caboni and offer his services to the public affairs office.
Mikkelson, who has at times been a vocal critic of university and state policy, thinks he can offer KU something a little different.
"I think having more dissident voices in these representations to the legislature is a good thing," he said. "Real discussion means you have opposition."