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FIRE Warns Kansas Board of Regents About Inadequate Proposed Social Media Policy Revisions

By May 2, 2014

Back in December, the Kansas Board of Regents enacted a policy on the “improper use of social media” by employees of Kansas’ public institutions of higher education that put academic freedom at risk. In response to a wave of criticism, the Board created a faculty workgroup to review the policy. The workgroup’s proposed policy (PDF), released in early March, dropped several problematic provisions of the current policy in favor of broad free speech affirmations and narrow exceptions for punishable conduct. The Board Governance Committee (BGC) has now drafted its proposed policy revisions in response to the faculty. The proposed revisions include promises of academic freedom but also, problematically, leave in place the overbroad and vague provisions that allow for punishment of constitutionally protected expression.

FIRE sent a letter yesterday urging the Board to adopt the language of the faculty workgroup policy in order to avoid the serious problems presented by both the current policy and the BGC’s proposal.

In our December 20 joint letter with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Kansas, we explained to the Board that allowing institutions to suspend or even fire faculty members for speech that “impairs … harmony among co-workers,” for example, is likely to prevent professors from engaging in exactly the kind of vigorous debate and questioning that is central to the purpose of the university.

Yesterday, FIRE explained in further detail how the standards set forth by the Board misuse some language from Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) to authorize punishment of far more speech than the Supreme Court allowed in that case.

FIRE praised the faculty workgroup’s proposed language that would ensure the protection of “any academic research and other scholarly activities; … academic instruction; … [and] in general, any communication via social media that is consistent with First Amendment protections and that is otherwise permissible under the law.” In contrast, though, the BGC’s proposal provides explicit protection for a narrower range of speech (emphases added):

i. academic research or other scholarly activity within the creator’s area of expertise;

ii. academic instruction related to the subject being taught; and

iii. statements, debate, or expressions made as part of shared governance and in accordance with university policies and processes, whether made by a group or individual employee.

We explained in our letter why this is inadequate:

These added, restrictive clauses narrow the protection for academic speech to unacceptably limited categories that contravene the Board of Regents’ claim that it fully supports academic freedom. Both subsections i and ii limit academic freedom to only particular subjects for each faculty member, leaving them at risk for punishment if they venture outside their typical area of study. Such restrictions place particular burdens on faculty members who endeavor to undertake novel and groundbreaking research, without which the pursuit of knowledge will stagnate and wither. To allow protection under principles of academic freedom only for “experts” discourages not only research in areas where there are no experts, but also interdisciplinary research, doing considerable damage to the “marketplace of ideas” that institutions of higher education should strive to embody.

Read our letter in full for more important points about the BGC’s proposed policy revisions. The Board Governance Committee is inviting public comment on its proposal until 5:00 p.m. Central Time today, and will meet again to discuss its proposal and any comments it receives before submitting its final recommendations to the Board.

Schools: University of Kansas Cases: Kansas Board of Regents Approves Vague and Overbroad Social Media Policy University of Kansas: Anti-NRA Tweet Results in Professor’s Suspension