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Big Ten schools lead the way with social media guidance for faculty, putting academic freedom front and center

Penn State's Beaver Stadium

Penn State's Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Katherine Welles/Shutterstock)

Stories of faculty being targeted by social media campaigns seeking to get them fired for their protected expression have been a distressingly regular feature of FIRE’s Newsdesk coverage in recent years. Social media campaigns against faculty have been a frequent impetus for FIRE’s intervention in university free speech disputes, as universities frequently falter in their obligations to defend their faculty members’ free expression in the face of moblike demands for censorship and termination. To that increasingly pernicious challenge, new guidance from Penn State University offers a comprehensive guide for fighting back. 

Social Media Support and Resources for Penn State Faculty,” a guidance document issued by Penn State this fall, is a valuable resource for faculty, as well as their departments and administrators, on how to navigate and respond to incidences of faculty members being subjected to harassing and intimidating campaigns based on their expression. The guidance includes, among other things: 

  • a comprehensive listing of the available resources and offices at Penn State that faculty may avail themselves of if they find themselves at the center of such an attack, 
  • thoughts on how (and whether) to engage such campaigns, and 
  • instructions to ensure that important information can be collected (e.g., so that it might be furnished to law enforcement in case it is needed for investigation) without the faculty member needing to directly expose themselves to its content. 

Before going further, it’s important to note that while I’m quoting and excerpting here from Penn State’s guidance, that guidance, as the university credits, is closely adapted from similar guidance issued by the University of Iowa, which is dated from early 2018. My compliments to Penn State’s policy, therefore, should also be read as compliments to those at the University of Iowa who laid the groundwork.

What is particularly good about the guidance is that at every level ― from guidance to the faculty, to junior and senior administrators, to communications staff ― it makes sure to put the faculty member’s right to free expression front and center.

What is particularly good about the guidance is that at every level ― from guidance to the faculty, to junior and senior administrators, to communications staff ― it makes sure to put the faculty member’s right to free expression front and center. 

Advice to unit administrators (taken here to mean department chairs and equivalent persons), for example, advises them to “[d]iscuss issues of academic freedom in regular forums (e.g., faculty meetings, student seminars), including attention to ways that external forces may attempt to silence scholars through social media attacks and the resources available to respond when or if attacks occur.” Unit executives (e.g., college deans) are encouraged to include, in any public statement on the attacks on their faculty, a defense of academic freedom. The university communications director is encouraged to assist in crafting statements that likewise emphasize the importance of academic freedom. The provost is encouraged to affirm the university’s commitment to academic freedom both privately in conversations with the affected faculty member(s), and publicly to the wider community, and the president is called on likewise to publicly offer such affirmations. 

Nowhere is the guidance’s emphasis on academic freedom more prominent than in its introduction, and it’s worth quoting at length:

The foundation for this document is the University’s unwavering support for academic freedom and freedom of expression. Academic freedom for faculty members in teaching and research is essential to the University’s educational mission. As described in policy, the University protects academic freedom, even with regard to controversial issues or ideas that may provoke disagreement in the public. Likewise, as citizens, faculty members enjoy strong protection for freedom of speech. Rooted in the Constitution, free expression is necessary for the robust intellectual exchange on which the University’s teaching and research missions depend. Thus, the targeting of scholars for their ideas or views may not only threaten harm to those individuals but also strikes at the University’s academic core. Through this document and other means, the University seeks to offer resources and support for faculty against the intimidation, harassment or injury that public discourse and the expression of unpopular ideas may generate. 

(Again, to give credit where it is due, this language is virtually identical to the language of the University of Iowa’s guidance.)

Especially important to this is how all-encompassing the guidance’s commitment is, in terms of defending expression in the context of teaching and research as well as expression in faculty members’ private capacities. Public universities bound by the First Amendment, of course, are legally obligated to protect such expression. But when so many universities struggle to find their principles when the pressure to censor and punish is particularly intense, statements like this are a breath of fresh air. What’s more, guidance such as this can have a powerful influence not only on guiding the institutional response to such controversies, but on setting expectations for those who would demand that universities violate faculty members’ First Amendment rights. 

As I wrote recently in the context of this year’s spike in demands, many instigated by students, to fire faculty members for their protected expression:

If universities are strongly on the record in favor of free expression and make clear that they won’t bow to demands for unconstitutional action, they can help cultivate a culture of free expression in which disputes can evince a better respect for the rights of others.

That thinking certainly holds here. Universities looking to provide guidance and assistance for faculty facing digital attacks can stand to take a page, or several, from their Big Ten peers.

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