Kansas Regents Stick with Social Media Policy

April 18, 2014

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni at The Joplin Globe

After directing a committee to study a controversial social media policy and make recommended changes, the Kansas Board of Regents appears to not be changing the policy at all.

It’s left some in academia baffled by why it appointed the work group in the first place.

The policy, approved by the regents last December in response to a Twitter post critical of the National Rifle Association by a University of Kansas journalism professor after the fatal shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, says a university chief executive officer can discipline employees, up to termination, for “improper use of social media.”

The policy sparked a national debate about First Amendment freedom for those working in academia. Faculty and staff across Kansas expressed outrage, as did the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Kansas, which prompted the regents to set up the study group.

The regents appointed representatives from each of the state’s universities to review the policy and make recommendations. On Wednesday, the group presented a 23-page report to the board during its regular meeting in Topeka.

Included in the report were six recommendations for policy revision. They pertain to the location of the policy in the board’s policy manual, the language of the opening paragraph of the policy, the definition of social media, guidelines to be followed by each university, a reminder that there are legal restrictions on the use of social media, and an acknowledgment that employees using social media as citizens of the U.S. do so with special obligations — “speech is speech and the use of social media is already covered by well settled rights and responsibilities.”

In short, the report stated, “the only real difference between the revised policy and the current policy is the perspective from which the board’s goal is addressed.”

“The work group believes it is crucial for a successful policy’s message to be affirming, to eliminate needless worry and concern, to point out that there are specific uses of social media that are not protected speech … and that affirms individual responsibility as the key in assuring against the misuse of social media.”

In presenting the proposed changes to the board on Wednesday, Charles Epp, co-chairman of the group and a University of Kansas professor, said officials must be mindful of protecting free speech given that professors and students frequently are involved in activities that stir controversy.

“You are touching the third rail of higher education here,” Epp said.

Regent Chairman Fred Logan said during the higher education board’s meeting Wednesday that he does not believe the policy restricts staff and faculty from openly expressing their opinions. Logan said the regent’s policy had been misunderstood, describing some concerns about staff being fired as “ludicrous.”

The regents are considering making some changes to explicitly say that the board respects First Amendment rights of staff to free speech, without dropping provisions that allow for firing or discipline.

“I don’t agree this restricts expression,” Logan said.

Harry Humphries, a sociology professor at Pittsburg State University, said he questions whether the board acted in the best interest of students and faculty.

“I just don’t know if they have that or not,” he said, emphasizing that opinions expressed are his own and not that of the universities or Kansas National Education Association, of which he is a member.

“What’s so problematic with this particular policy is how do they define what will be offensive to the president?” Humphries said.

He also said he believes the ramifications of the policy issue will be long-felt.

“I think what they’ve done — the unintended consequences — is they united faculty against them. You’ve got the KBOR and their lawyers on one side, and the faculty and faculty organizations on the other,” he said. “I don’t know how it will play out, but the morale of the faculty is kind of low right now.”

“I think the policy is ill-conceived; I don’t understand why the status quo wasn’t OK,” said Humphries, noting that as a Fulbright scholar he had “absolute academic freedom in the Russian federation.”

“We must have academic freedom,” he said. “How can you possibly talk about anything meaningful without it? It’s not (PSU President) Steve Scott we have a problem with — it’s the policy.”

PSU Communications Professor Mark Arbuckle, who has been following the issue since controversy began and has taught media law for 15 years, said he believes a policy was not necessary because expectations of behavior already are spelled out in the personnel handbook. He said the policy clearly infringes on faculty rights and is “constitutionally flawed.”

“Heated discourse or lack of ‘harmony’ should be welcome in higher education, and is necessary for the advancement of knowledge,” he said. “And who is to say what the ‘regular operation’ of the university is?”

Arbuckle cited numerous court cases that support his position, including Reno v. ACLU (1997), which says Internet speech enjoys full First Amendment protection; social media speech therefore has no less protection than does a traditional letter to the editor or street-corner speech.

Further, he said if a policy was to be enacted, those affected by the policy should have had an opportunity to give input.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

No fear?

Earlier this year, PSU President Steve Scott and Provost Lynette Olson called a meeting of faculty and staff representatives in which Scott said he intended to act as he has in the past and that they need not be fearful.

Schools: University of Kansas Cases: Kansas Board of Regents Approves Vague and Overbroad Social Media Policy