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Regents impair rights on social media - The Sunflower: Opinion

Free speech? Not on Facebook Regents impair rights on social media

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Posted: Monday, December 23, 2013 8:50 am

The state’s governing body of higher education is using one professor’s words to justify action that is at best an overreach and at worst a shameless power grab.

The move to adopt a policy that allows Kansas Board of Regents universities to regulate their employees’ expression on social media comes after David Guth, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas (KU), posted a controversial message on Twitter in September.

Guth might have been a little extreme, but the Regents are completely out of line.

This irresponsible policy contains a provision explicitly endangering freedom of speech. It needs to be revised or repealed as soon as possible. If the Regents will not act, it is imperative that a third party take action, probably in court.

It’s hard to understand why this policy made it into the books as written.

“The chief executive officer of a state university has the authority,” it reads, “to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.”

It includes several provisions defining “improper use.”

Few will object to the restrictions limiting posts that incite violence and expose confidential student information, but one section is very alarming.

It permits administrators to restrict social media in the “best interests of the university” without defining exactly what that means. Essentially, they now have free reign to restrict speech based on their subjective judgment alone.

Posts that criticize Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies or actions by the state Legislature may not be perceived as under the umbrella of a university’s “best interests.”

What happens when a state official complains about some political commentary on a professor’s Twitter feed? How much latitude does the university have in restricting the author? Can that person’s job be threatened? That is all suspiciously unclear.

The policy was made without faculty consultation, despite appeals to contribute. The American Association of University Professors denounced the move, saying in a statement it “makes a mockery of faculty members’ rights to speak as public citizens on matters of public concern, including speech about university affairs.”

It should be a founding principle of all educational institutions to allow speech, even confrontational or insensitive speech, to be as unregulated as possible within their auspices.

That ought to apply even just within the classroom, but this policy extends outside of it, to the entire world.

“You are potentially walking into a dangerous situation,” said Jeff Vitter, KU’s provost, in a warning to the Regents before they adopted the new policy.

He’s right. Our universities deserve better. Employees deserve the right to utilize social media without fear of termination just for expressing an honest opinion. Our students deserve professors whose constitutional right to free speech isn’t limited.  

We deserve to have open forum on all fronts, whether in the classroom or on the Internet. Not suppression.

In creating the policy, the Regents have stifled the freedom of public employees for fear of what they may say. The result is a restriction of a basic right in academia, which should promote the sharing of ideas above all else.

The Regents need to realize that while unchecked use of social media may have its occasional casualties, the protection of free speech is worth the cost.

This editorial is intended for cross-publication in The Sunflower of Wichita State University and The Collegio of Pittsburg State University.

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