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Kansas Bill on University Employees’ Titles Is a Bad Idea

Kansas House Bill 2234, introduced last week, would require the state’s public colleges and universities to prohibit their employees from identifying themselves by their “official title” when expressing their opinions on elected state officials, candidates for office, or pending legislation in newspaper opinion columns. According to the bill, “‘Official title’ includes, but is not limited to, an employee’s job title, position, institution of employment and job description.”

Rep. John Carmichael hit the nail square on the head when he expressed his concerns about the bill. The Topeka Capital-Journal relayed his comments:

If you are in fact a professor at The University of Kansas, that is part of your identity and part of your resume. … To muzzle an academic in identifying him or herself, and their accomplishment, not only does it have the effect of denying them their right to free speech, it also denies the public the right to understand who is commenting and what their, perhaps, bias or interest might be.

Carmichael is absolutely right that the bill would curtail university employees’ freedom of speech. Identifying one’s job title or description is constitutionally protected speech, and neither the legislature nor state school administrators may punish such speech consistent with the First Amendment.

Universities may prohibit professors and other employees from claiming to speak on behalf of the university. However, public university employees frequently write on matters of public concern, and they are generally not presumed to be speaking for anyone but themselves. Exceptions might occur when, for example, an administrator speaks about a current controversy over which he or she has authority to take action. Such circumstances, however, are not comparable to professors remarking on pending legislation or state officials.

The bill fails on a moral and practical level, too. Part of how we assess the credibility of what a person is saying is by considering the speaker’s experience and knowledge on the issue, as well as his or her potential interest in the matter. Without information about the source of an opinion, readers are less able to evaluate that opinion in context and give it its due weight compared with different viewpoints.

Let’s look at how this bill could work in practice. Imagine a group of longtime professors at Kansas’s public colleges want to write an op-ed for The Topeka Capital-Journal concerning a legislative measure that would have serious repercussions for the state university system. They want to explain how their collective hundreds of years of experience informs their views and take a stand as a group of professionals. Under HB 2234, they would be disallowed from doing so. They could only write their op-ed and sign their names, leaving readers to wonder who this seemingly ragtag group of Joe and Josephine Randoms is. At best, the bill will be rendered ineffective by readers who take the time to Google the information that the writers are prohibited from giving themselves. At worst, readers will remain ill-informed.

If this result seems too broad to believe, here’s the core text of the bill (emphases added):

The state board of regents, the board of trustees of any community college, the board of regents of any municipal university and the governing body of any technical college shall adopt and implement, or require to be implemented, a policy and plan which prohibits an employee from providing or using such employee's official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column. Such policy and plan shall prohibit employees from providing or using such employee's official title in a newspaper opinion column only when the opinion of the employee concerns a person who currently holds any elected public office in this state, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office in this state or any matter pending before any legislative or public body in this state. This section shall not prohibit an employee from providing such employee's personal opinion on a person currently holding an elected position, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office or any matter pending before a legislative body as long as such employee does so without providing or using such employee's official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column.

The good news is that Rep. Virgil Peck, who reportedly introduced the bill, doesn’t seem particularly inclined to fight for it. He said he sometimes introduces bills “out of courtesy” when he is asked to do so. This is a common practice amongst legislators. It is, however, less common for legislators to admit their mistakes, which is why we are particularly pleased that, to his credit, Representative Peck appears to have abandoned this legislation.

FIRE hopes the bill goes no further than it has, and that Kansas lawmakers recognize that such a restriction on expression would be a detriment not just to university employees but also to citizens across the state.

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