Work group reviewing regents’ social media policy opts for an advisory version

? The group tasked with reviewing the Kansas Board of Regents’ controversial social media policy today approved an alternative draft version that seeks only to advise faculty and staff on the responsible use of social media.

The regents charged the group with making recommendations after the current policy, which allows state university CEOs to suspend or fire employees for improper social media use, prompted widespread criticism that the policy was broad, vague and could chill speech.

After today’s meeting at Emporia State University, the group members, who are faculty and staff of regents universities, will take the draft policy to their respective universities for input. The group plans to disseminate the policy draft publicly and allow anyone to comment on it beginning Monday.

Before settling on an advisory policy, the group also considered two other drafts that included elements of the regents’ original policy. Co-chairman Kevin Johnson, general counsel at Emporia State, explained that he thought “using our language on top of their language” in a revised policy might stand a better chance of being accepted by the regents.

But the group as a whole ultimately rejected most punitive language and any allusion to the authority of university heads to discipline employees over social media use. “We may be entering a devil’s bargain” by offering any policy to the regents that compromises academic freedom and First Amendment protection, said Max McCoy, an associate professor of journalism at Emporia State.

Instead the group opted for an entirely different policy in tone and purpose, meant to inform employees of best practices, existing university policies and free speech rights. The policy is meant to “encourage the responsible use of social media by all employees,” the draft states.

The draft specifically excludes scholarly activities, academic instruction, statements made in the university governance process and all communication by employees that does not violate the law from the policy’s purview. At the same time it reminds employees that social media posts could be subject to existing university policies and laws.

The discussion within the group about the nature and language of the policy acknowledged the policy’s two audiences: the regents who will ultimately decide on it, and the faculty and staff who will be subject to it. Johnson said that in choosing an advisory policy the group made “a huge revision.”

“They gave us an airplane to revise, and we’re giving them back a boat,” he said.

As currently written, the regents’ social media policy allows university heads to suspend and fire employees for social media posts that impair discipline or create disharmony at the university or conflict with the best interest of the university and its ability to perform services, among other violations.

After passing the policy unanimously in December, the regents announced they would review it in response to widespread criticism that it was too broad and could restrain free speech and academic freedom.

The regents established the work group to study the policy and make recommendations to the board by April. In the meantime the regents have rejected several pleas from faculty and staff around the state to suspend the policy until revised.

The policy passed after KU journalism professor David Guth’s anti-NRA post on Twitter sparked an uproar as well as calls from some state lawmakers for Guth to be fired.

A vocal critic of the regents policy, Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a KU associate professor of aerospace engineering and head of the Kansas chapter of the American Association of University Professors, called today’s draft revision “a very responsible document.”

“I wish these guys would have written the Board of Regents policy from the start,” he said.