Last month, the Kansas Board of Regents denied a faculty group’s request for the suspension of the Board’s controversial and overbroad social media policy while that policy was being reviewed. Now the University of Kansas (KU) Senate has approved a resolution reiterating that the policy “infringes on the right to freedom of expression” and should be suspended pending review.
As Torch readers may recall, the policy, passed in December, allows the chief executive officer of a university to fire a faculty member if he or she posts anything on social media that “impairs … harmony among co-workers” or is, in the sole opinion of the chief executive officer, “contrary to the best interest of the university.” Del Mar College Professor John M. Crisp aptly asked in the Centre Daily Times last week, “What does it mean to say that something impairs ‘harmony among co-workers,’ especially at institutions that exist to explore the frictions that develop when new ideas rub up against old?” As Crisp noted, “[P]rofessors could be subject to termination if their disagreement is professed too loudly, or in the wrong way, or even at all.”
According to KU student newspaper The University Daily Kansan:
The resolution opposed the policy on the grounds that the policy infringes upon First Amendment rights, conflicts with principles of academic freedom, hurts the recruitment and retention of faculty and imposes a threat to the higher education systems of Kansas. It also asked that the policy be suspended pending the recommendations of the work group, which should be announced in April.
Though KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter agreed the policy needed to be revised in order to protect faculty rights, he also sympathized with what he saw as the Board’s intentions. According to the Lawrence Journal-World:
“The intentions were to protect KU in particular and higher ed in general from the state legislature and potential funding cuts in the aftermath of the David Guth incident,” Vitter said.
He added that he thought it was important that a revised policy both protect academic freedom and “reassure the Legislature that we are accountable, we are aware both of our rights and responsibilities.”
It seems that Vitter is referring to threats by members of the State Senate that unless KU professor David Guth was fired for his wholly protected but controversial tweet last fall, they would not vote for KU’s budget. Vitter’s inclination to “reassure” the senators that KU faculty know their “responsibilities” might be understandable if Guth’s tweet approached the legal standard for a true threat or incitement to immediate violence—but it did not. The proper response to the Senate’s ultimatum, therefore, is to reaffirm that “funding cuts in the aftermath of the David Guth incident” would violate the First Amendment as retaliation for speech based on its content.
It is disappointing that even as Vitter voices support for faculty rights, he fails to grasp the breadth of First Amendment protection for speech that people may find offensive. Still, it is reassuring to see University of Kansas faculty advocating for free speech and academic freedom—and they are not alone in opposing the social media policy. Kansas State University’s Student Governing Association also unanimously voiced its opposition to the policy last week.