As we wrote recently on The Torch, the Kansas Board of Regents has approved a revised social media policy regulating the speech of faculty members at the state’s public colleges and universities. The Board’s decision came despite the fact that the policy has been the subject of much criticism from free speech advocates, including FIRE, due to the fact that it authorizes punishment for constitutionally protected speech and leaves professors uncertain of their expressive rights.
Oliver Bateman, an attorney and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, expresses many of the same concerns in an excellent column yesterday for Al Jazeera America. Usefully, Bateman also shares his perspective on how the policy’s restrictions could affect the careers of many faculty members:
For faculty at the “publish or perish” stage of their careers, harsh social media regulations could also serve as a significant impediment to professional advancement. Big shifts in the dissemination of scholarship, including the closure of some university presses, have prompted junior scholars to seek out new avenues for presenting their research. The U.S. Intellectual History Blog, to which I contribute occasional posts, allows academics to share their work in a quasi-public setting. Sport in American History, Legal History Blog and ContractsProf Blog are among many such sites posting material that often skirts the line between pure, disinterested research and the opinion of its author, with academics staking out positions that, at least to others in their field, might be deemed controversial. These blogs are in turn frequently discussed on Twitter, where academics who “follow” one another can offer critiques.
Further, Bateman reveals that social media restrictions in university policy not only hinder avenues like these, they have already caused him to reconsider his own online discussion and dialogue:
Has the Guth contretemps affected the way I navigate social media and the blogosphere? I’d be lying if I said no. When colleagues began tweeting an essay in which the Atlantic writer Ta-Nahesi Coates made a compelling case for reparations, I paused to consider whether a casual observer might think that my retweeting of this piece constituted an endorsement of its thesis (this despite the fact that my Twitter account explicitly states that “retweets do not constitute endorsements”). To this hypothetical outside observer, such an avowedly “political” stance might appear to render me incapable of teaching the history of slavery or the Civil War in an unbiased manner — never mind, of course, that such positions often arise from a careful engagement with these subjects.
Accounts like these are useful in assessing the damage caused by restrictions like the Kansas Board of Regents’ new policy. While one may never know just how much faculty speech is chilled by the new Kansas policy, one can hope that other colleges and universities do not follow suit by creating their own restrictive social media policies and censoring professors’ expressive activity.
Bateman’s article provides several compelling reasons why they should not, and I urge you to read it in full.