State Rep. Peck takes on critics in debate over university professor columns

State Rep. Virgil Peck testified Wednesday in favor of House Bill 2234, which would prevent university professors from using their official titles in newspaper opinion columns. But he steadfastly denied that he was the one who requested the bill, and he had a few choice words for anyone who says otherwise.

“I want it to be known publicly, for any fruitcake that may want to write something about me, I did not author the bill. I did not ask for the bill to be written,” Peck said. “Merely as a courtesy to the chairman of the Local Government Committee (Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center), I introduced it as a committee bill.”

The bill would prohibit any employee of a public higher education institution from using his or her official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column. The policy would apply only when those opinion columns concern “a person who currently holds any elected public office in this state, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office in this state or any matter pending before any legislative or public body in this state.”

Although no one who testified in favor of the bill would say specifically what prompted it, many have suggested it is a response to columns written by a group of university professors, mainly in political science, under the heading “Insight Kansas.”

That group includes Kansas University professor Burdett Loomis; Emporia State University professor Michael Smith; Fort Hays State University professor Chapman Rackaway; and Wichita State University professor Ed Flentje, among others.

During the last election cycle, several of those columns were highly critical of policies enacted by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature.

Both Peck and Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, the only other person to speak in favor of the bill, said university employees should be free to speak their minds as individuals. But when expressing political opinions, they said university employees should not be allowed to use their university affiliation.

There is no mention in the bill about how the state would prevent newspapers from printing those official titles anyway, if they choose to do so.

Both men were asked several times why higher education employees were singled out in the bill, and not any other state employee. They responded by saying they had not seen examples or heard complaints about employees in other agencies engaging in that activity.

But Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, brought up an example, pointing out a column that had been written during the campaign by Flentje of Wichita State, “making a statement that he thought the governor’s policies were flawed.”

“It was responded to by the state budget director (Shawn Sullivan) who used his title to say the governor’s policies, these were incorrect, this was not part of the governor’s policy,” Trimmer said. “Under this bill, that professor of economics could not say he was a professor of economics at the Hugo Wall Institute of Public Policy at Wichita State University, but the governor’s economic budget director could use his title.”

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, testified against the bill, calling it a “slippery slope” that could eventually lead to silencing school superintendents and teachers from writing columns or letters to the editor criticizing funding cuts or other state education policies.

The committee only heard testimony on the bill Wednesday. There was no announcement about when the panel might vote on whether to send it to the full House for consideration.