Kansas Board of Regents restricts free speech for academics

December 19, 2013

FILE: A sign displays the Twitter logo on the front of the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the company’s IPO in New York, November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Kansas Board of Regents just adopted a new social media policy, which allows Kansas state universities to fire (tenured and untenured) employees for “improper use” of social media. “Improper use” includes inciting violence (perhaps justifiable though potentially open to contentious interpretations), posting confidential information about students (fine) or posting things that are “contrary to the best interests of the university” (not fine at all!)

As Steve Saideman puts it:

[..] it seems to mean that the university can fire a prof or staff who blogs, tweets, facebooks or whatevers any criticism of the university (since the university’s best interest is defined by itself to look wonderful and error-free) or their own political views.  This is counter to everything I know about academic governance and …. personal freedom.  Given that Kansas is a public institution, this is essentially saying that an agent of the state can fire state employees for pretty much any reason that the university defines as its own best interests.

[..]What makes universities the valuable places they are to the public is that they are places where ideas are exchanged freely and frequently.  Social media helps make our stuff get out further beyond the walls of our campuses.  This is a good thing.  If it means that folks sometimes say cranky stuff, suck it up.  Be mature and responsible institutions that can handle a little dissent.  Otherwise, you risk squelching much of the value added of these knowledge-creation/dissemination places (or whatever they are called these days).

And Amanda Murdie:

“Best interest of the university” could also mean I should never post about my current research.  Let me give you an example – I study human rights and am working on a paper with Victor Asal and Udi Sommer on how advocacy concerning LGBT rights influences the rights for sexual minorities to marry.  This right is not in line with the Governor of the State of Kansas, Sam Brownback, who actually appoints your board.  So, if I write a post about my current research, would that be against the “best interest of the university”?  We all know that Brownback’s staff really likes to search for anti-Brownback tweets (even of high schoolers)– would a blog at the Duck on that subject get me in hot water if I taught in Kansas?  I sure hope not.

Universities everywhere are encouraging their faculty to engage their students and the world through blogs, Twitter, and other social media. This is understandable. But why would faculty do this with such an open-ended policy that can get them fired for writing things someone in a position of authority doesn’t appreciate?

I would take this a bit further still. If universities want their faculty to be active on social media, they should not just devise policies that tell faculty what they can’t say but that also protect them from some inherent risks of social media usage. A simple one is that social media usage is mistake prone.  You hit publish and whatever happens to be on your mind is there for the world to see.  There is not much time to edit, sleep on it, review copy-edited versions of your text, and so on.  Anyone who blogs or tweets regularly will say things he or she later regrets or wished were worded just a bit differently. There should be some protection against being fired for offending powerful constituencies not just to protect free speech but also to accommodate incidental mistakes.

The Kansas policy is motivated by a specific incident and I suspect a lot of universities and university systems are considering policies that regulate social media usage by their faculty. The risk of policy making motivated by scandals is that it becomes too conservative and does not fully internalize the benefits of a more liberal (and thus more risky) regime, in this case the incentives it gives faculty to engage in social media usage in the first place.

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.
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Joshua Tucker | December 19, 2013