Faculty fears social media policy infringes on First Amendment rights to free speech

Graphic by Kathleen Murray

When David Guth, professor in journalism from the University of Kansas, made an offensive tweet that got him suspended last year, the Kansas Board of Regents created a policy regarding the use of social media to provide guidelines for dealing with future incidents. But, the creation of the policy may have poured gasoline onto the fire instead of water.

The policy grants the chief executive officer of a state university the authority to suspend or terminate any members of faculty or staff who make “improper use of social media,” such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and more. While several K-State faculty agree with parts of the policy, which define “improper use” as inciting violence or disclosing confidential student information, there are other parts of the policy that faculty believe infringe on their First Amendment rights to free speech and could also endanger tenure. Statements made that are “contrary to the best interest of the university” or “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers” are also part of the policy.

William Hsu, associate professor of computing and information sciences, said that many companies, such as Microsoft, have policies that protect employees from divulging secrets, but expressing personal and political opinions should be protected by the First Amendment.

“The policy itself is very broad and very vague about what constitutes damage to the university and when we’re representing the university,” he said. “This is a threat to that individual freedom of expression, in my opinion.”

Reaction to the policy has been overwhelmingly negative. Faculty from all areas of study and all different political ideologies oppose the new policy and expressed dissatisfaction with its creation.

Faculty, staff and administration of Kansas universities may not see eye-to-eye on all things, but we’re united in our opposition to this Draconian policy,” said Philip Nel, university distinguished professor of English, in an email interview.
Faculty Senate President Julia Keen, associate professor of architectural engineering and construction science, said she has received “a tremendous number” of emails from K-State faculty and staff, not one of which was in support of, or even neutral to, the policy.

“It was especially disappointing that the KBoR developed this policy with no input from the universities they represent,” Keen said in an email interview.
Because a larger number of faculty already utilize social media for personal and professional use, many chose to use their social media accounts and blogs to protest the policy.

Amy Lara, associate professor of philosophy, posted on her Facebook on Jan. 8, “In protest of my employer’s new policy on social media use by faculty, I am posting something controversial and sincere on my Facebook page every day until the policy is repealed.” Her subsequent posts have tackled subjects ranging from feminism to drug use. Lara also said that she was not worried about getting fired for her posts.

“I want to make a point that the thing I’m doing that could get me fired isn’t harmful,” she said. “We have to take risks if we think something’s wrong.”
On Jan. 12, an open letter to the Board of Regents calling for the suspension of the social media policy was printed in several area newspapers and posted on Nel’s personal blog. Nel, who drafted the letter with Elizabeth Dodd, university distinguished professor of English, said it had been signed by more than 80 distinguished professors from K-State and the University of Kansas.

K-State President Kirk Schulz, who regularly uses Twitter and Facebook, declined an interview with The Collegian. A statement released by Schulz on Dec. 23, 2013 said, “One of the fundamental founding principles of higher education in our country is the ability for faculty to speak out on controversial issues without fear of retribution. This principle must be preserved.”

In response to the concerns raised over the social media policy, the Board of Regents announced on Dec. 31, 2013 that a workgroup of representatives from each state university would be assembled to review the policy. The names of the members of the workgroup were announced on Jan. 17. K-State will be represented by Keen and
Jeff Morris, vice president for Communications and Marketing. Despite recommendations by the Council of Faculty Senate presidents to suspend the social media policy until the workgroup has had time to suggest revisions, the Board of Regents has decided to keep the current policy in place.
Breeze Richardson, associate director of communications and government relations for the Kansas Board of Regents, said some headlines and characterizations of the process suggest the policy is being rejected or revoked, or scrapped and rewritten, and this is not true. The purpose of the workgroup is to review the policy and make recommendations, not rewrite the policy entirely, she said.

“We seek for them to offer clarity,” Richardson said. “The concern that has been raised has been truly welcome in the sense that they want these policies to be discussed and to be a living document that can be revised.”

Several K-State faculty said there were parts of the policy, however, they did agree with, such as the section that protected confidential student information.
I can see also why one would want to discourage faculty from inciting violence,” Nel said. “I’m not opposed to any kind of social media policy. I’m opposed to one that violates the free and open debate that is at the core of intellectual inquiry.”
Lara also said she agreed with parts of the policy, and believed it would be possible to create a social media policy that would “limit professors from creating a hostile work environment while ensuring free speech.”

However, several members of faculty expressed concern that, regardless of any revisions done to the policy in the future, it has already created lasting damage to Kansas’ reputation on a national level. This damage could affect all state universities, including K-State.

“Unfortunately this policy is extremely detrimental to the university,” Keen said. “It hinders the opportunity to attract and retain top faculty and staff, and impacts the manner in which social media will be used even in an educational capacity.”