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AAUP Conference Highlights Lack of Protection for Faculty Social Media Participation

Yesterday FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, Will Creeley, and Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, Peter Bonilla, spoke at the 2014 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Conference, which featured a series of presentations about university policies on faculty use of social media and other issues affecting academic freedom.

Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, emphasized the need for speech-protective policies in his plenary address, titled “Can I Tweet That?” Will and Peter led a follow-up session at the conference to bring attention to new and growing threats to faculty free speech.

Inside Higher Ed reports today on some of the highlights of the conference, including topics that will sound familiar to Torch readers:

Reichman pointed to what he called the “schizoid” document recently approved by the Kansas Board of Regents. The board wrote a first draft following a controversial tweet by David Guth, professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, about the National Rifle Association and the Navy Yard shootings in D.C. last year (for which he was put on paid leave and eventually took a planned sabbatical). The first draft of the policy was widely criticized because it allowed for disciplinary action, up to termination, for use of social media that any public university found objectionable. A later draft included language about academic freedom, but Reichman said it only paid “lip service” to the principle.

As we’ve said before here on The Torch, the self-contradictory policy will likely chill a significant amount of faculty expression as Kansas’ public university employees are left without meaningful guidance as to what communications might lead to discipline.

All members of college and university communities nationwide should heed Peter’s warning to conference attendees: “There is probably no more dangerous frontier right now than online speech.” Think about it: A single, constitutionally protected tweet from the personal account of a professor at a public institution resulted in not just an end (for now, anyway) to that professor’s teaching but also additional restrictions on online speech by public college and university staff across the state.

Regarding new trends, Will noted “trigger warnings” as an emerging potential threat to academic freedom. Inside Higher Ed reports that “Reichman, who attended the session, said Committee A was opposed to blanket trigger warning policies and said AAUP is planning a forthcoming statement on them.”

There’s a lot to watch out for when it comes to defending faculty speech rights, and we’ll continue covering it all here on The Torch. For now, read more about the conference in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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