Editorial: Stepping back

The Kansas Board of Regents should be willing to modify their stand on social media based on a new policy drafted by university faculty and staff members.

The group that the Kansas Board of Regents asked to review and comment on a new social media policy for state universities didn’t find much in that policy to like.

In fact, the faculty and staff representatives of all the regents universities decided to dump the original policy and write one of their own, one that drops the punitive language and seeks primarily to advise university personnel on responsible use of social media.

It’s not the policy the regents had in mind, but it deserves their serious consideration.

Under pressure to respond to state legislators who called for the firing of Kansas University professor David Guth following an ill-advised tweet about the National Rifle Association, the regents pushed through a policy that was so broad and vague that many university personnel feared it would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and even constitutionally protected free speech. To their credit, the regents agreed to appoint a group to review the policy. Now they need to approach the group’s proposed new policy with open minds and a willingness to accept either the new policy or some kind of reasonable compromise.

To a business owner, it seems reasonable to set a policy that give a boss authority to fire someone who uses social media in a way that adversely affects the business. However, running a university isn’t like running most businesses. The whole charge of a university, as former KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy often said, is to serve as a “free marketplace of ideas.” Murphy also referred to the concept of “intellectual ferment,” which reflects the fact that the free flow of ideas at a university sometimes can be a messy business.

Nonetheless, trying to rein in that “ferment” undermines the true mission of a university to question conventional wisdom and debate both popular and unpopular ideas. Sometimes those debates can be uncomfortable, even a little shocking, but if they can’t take place at an institution of higher learning, where can they occur?

The speed with which social media can transport any idea into the public sphere creates new responsibilities for universities and individual faculty and staff members to use good judgement when choosing what to broadcast. Comments that once might have gone no further than a faculty meeting now can be easily broadcast and misconstrued thousands of times over in a matter of minutes.

The new technology certainly suggests the need for restraint, but the advisory policy proposed by university faculty and staff may be able to accomplish that goal at least as well as the regents’ more punitive policy — without infringing on free speech or academic freedom.