As I See It

Social media policies at KU need clarification

Updated: 2013-12-19T05:55:55Z

By Elise Reuter

The Kansas City Star

How strong a reaction can one quick, 140-character message garner?

Phones ring incessantly, incensed Kansas legislators suggest funding cuts and school officials receive thinly disguised death threats. These events followed the inflammatory tweet University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth unleashed in response to the mass shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, stating that “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA” and “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”

The issue erupted after Guth was interviewed by conservative college news site Campus Reform, spurring the university to put Guth on indefinite leave to avoid further disruption. While Guth has since returned for administrative work outside of the classroom, the school is still reeling from the resulting media onslaught. The misuse of social media is an all-too-familiar issue, as thoughtless messages come under public scrutiny.

Given that Guth’s tweet was sent from a personal account, his statements are protected under free speech. But even if Guth’s statements were personal, they weren’t private, and he still carries responsibility for his words. While his tweet may not fall under hate speech, as NRA officials and state Sen. Greg Smith have claimed, it provides no valuable information to back its offensive content.

As a journalism student at KU, I respect the school’s decision to support Guth’s right to free speech despite the consequences. However, as the school encourages us to maintain an unblemished online presence, I would expect an instructor to do the same. KU can’t change how its professors use their personal accounts. But perhaps the university’s guidelines on social media could use another look.

Currently, KU’s policy has room for interpretation, as it places social media accounts under the same umbrella as other forms of speech. However, with personal accounts, which do not fall under the university’s jurisdiction, the policy only offers a small suggestion: “…remember, as a KU employee, you are always an ambassador of the University.”

Last month, the KU Faculty Senate passed a statement affirming their right to free speech, which is “guaranteed to all faculty members” by the KU Code of Faculty Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct. While the statement didn’t directly mention Guth’s tweet, it set a tone for future incidents. I am glad the university chose to uphold free speech, but speech still needs to be framed in its proper context.

Some schools, including Vanderbilt University, require faculty who openly identify themselves as an employee of the school to include a disclaimer in their bio. This helps further separate the individual’s statements from the university’s opinion.

I would encourage KU to include a similar statement in its policy, and to use this opportunity to open discussions on effective ways to use social media. Certainly, Guth’s tweet has resulted in plenty of negative attention toward the university. But this is an important learning opportunity for both faculty and students that the journalism school should not overlook.

Students and professors need to consider the unintended consequences of widely distributed social media. Some students have said that their parents are NRA members, and that the highly politicized nature of Guth’s tweet would potentially turn them away from his classes or put them at a disadvantage if they shared their parents’ position.

Professors have a duty to educate students without prejudice and accept that even private tweets or other personal social media must meet reasonable standards of thoughtful commentary. The ideas from more student-faculty discussions need to be taken seriously, and potentially incorporated into a better-clarified school policy.

Elise Reuter of Lawrence is a junior at the University of Kansas, majoring in journalism. This semester, she is an intern with The Star’s Editorial Board.

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