Editorial: Curbing speech

A hastily passed policy on the use of social media by state university faculty and staff raises questions about the importance of free speech and academic freedom.

Do you suppose the advent of radio also sent state university officials into a panic?

After all, that new form of communication made it possible for a comment that “adversely affects” the university to be broadcast instantly over hundreds of miles. It wasn’t like a faculty member was standing on the corner holding a sign.

That raises an interesting question concerning the social media policy approved last week by the Kansas Board of Regents. The new policy says that the chief executive officer of a state university can “suspend, dismiss or terminate” a faculty or staff member who posts an ill-advised message on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social media. What if they put the same message on a sign or a poster?

The regents acknowledged that their concern about social media was related to September’s flap over a Twitter post by Kansas University professor David Guth, but they said they didn’t feel pressured by state legislators, even though comments from legislators at the time included at least one threat to defund KU. The fact that the policy was hastily approved — without discussion with university faculty or staff representatives — just a couple of weeks before the opening of the legislative session nonetheless suggests that the regents saw some urgency to get a statement on the books.

For whatever reason, the regents decided now was the time to write social media into its policies. They put it under “suspensions, terminations and dismissals” — right after the policy that allows a university CEO to dismiss any employee, including a tenured faculty member who has been charged with or convicted of a felony.

Really? Just below a felony?

The response from university faculty members was quick and understandable. Although the Regents chairman describe this as “a very narrowly drawn policy,” the policy gives university CEOs broad authority to dole out discipline for “improper use of social media,” which also is broadly defined to include anything that “adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

There is no specific mention of academic freedom or protections for tenured faculty, although individual universities must establish a grievance procedure to allow faculty and staff to appeal a CEO’s decision. As a KU professor, who also is state conference president for the American Association of University Professors, noted, the new policy is “fraught with potential for abuse.”

Whatever threat is posed by social media at state universities should be balanced against the threat of those universities becoming known as places that don’t tolerate the free flow of ideas among their faculty and staff. The possibility that the policy could affect universities’ ability to recruit and retain top faculty members seems like a reasonable concern.

There is no place where free speech and the freedom to discuss both popular and unpopular ideas is more important than on a university campus. Regents are concerned about social media, but there is nothing they could do that would be worse for the reputation of state universities than to enforce a policy that infringes on the free flow of ideas at those schools.