Facing mounting criticism that its new policy on “improper use of social media” endangers not just academic freedom but potentially also the University of Kansas’s accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, the Kansas Board of Regents is continuing with its plan to form a “workgroup” that will review the policy. Faculty rights advocates are concerned about the policy’s broad and vaguely-worded prohibitions on, among other things, “impair[ing] harmony among co-workers” or making a communication that is, according to a university’s CEO’s judgment, “contrary to the best interest of the university.” And in trying to alleviate faculty concerns, Pittsburg State University (PSU) President Steve Scott has illustrated exactly why the policy is problematic.
According to a PSU press release, Scott said in a meeting with faculty and staff on Monday that members of the PSU community, at least, have nothing to worry about:
“The new policy authorizes me to do something,” Scott told representatives of key campus groups at a meeting in Russ Hall. “It puts the burden on me and I think I have a pretty good track record. I want to reassure faculty and staff about my intention to continue to act as I have in the past. They shouldn’t think that a new era has arrived on campus.”
To start, Scott’s assessment that his own track record is “pretty good” is hardly an unequivocal commitment to defend faculty members’ robust and critically important First Amendment rights. But even if he did make an unequivocal commitment, so too, in FIRE’s experience, have innumerable other college administrators who nevertheless went on to infringe on student and faculty speech rights. The First Amendment prohibits laws and policies that can be used to punish protected speech precisely for this reason; individuals are fallible, biased, and (reserving judgment on Scott himself) sometimes plainly untrustworthy.
Further, Scott is asking PSU faculty and staff to trust him personally to enforce the policy in a certain manner. The fact that he is referring to his own track record suggests he is aware of the potential for someone with a different history to abuse the policy. At other schools, and even at PSU if Scott leaves his position, Scott’s “trust me” attitude will be irrelevant. As the leader of a university, one would hope Scott would support free inquiry by everyone in the state, not just those at his own institution.
Without a written policy that draws clear lines between punishable and protected speech, faculty members are likely to choose to self-censor rather than risk punishment. Faculty who are unsure of what the policy covers cannot be expected to look to Scott’s “pretty good” track record to guess at whether he would use his discretion to punish them or not. The boundaries of the policy must be enumerated in the policy itself, and they must not authorize punishment for constitutionally protected speech.
FIRE will keep an eye out for updates on the policy review and potential revisions.
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