The Kansas Board of Regents will consider adding language on free speech to its social media policy, but will not fundamentally change the rules, following criticism that the policy gives administrators too much power to fire or discipline employees for postings on Twitter and other outlets.
The regents unanimously approved the policy in December 2013 in response to a Twitter post critical of the National Rifle Association by University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth after the September shootings that left 13 dead at the Navy Yard in Washington.
Guth apologized and was placed on administrative leave. He is taking a sabbatical during the spring semester.
The policy says a university chief executive officer can discipline employees, up to termination, for social media communications that affect the university’s ability to carry out its functions.
The policy’s list of improper uses includes communications that incite violence, disclose student information or research data, or are “contrary to the best interest of the university.”
In response to a backlash that the policy is too harsh, the regents are considering changes to explicitly say that the board respects First Amendment rights of staff to free speech, without dropping provisions that allow for firing or discipline. The next draft of the policy is expected to be proposed in May.
Chairman Fred Logan said during the higher education board’s meeting this week that he does not believe the policy restricts staff and faculty from openly expressing their opinions. Logan said the policy had been misunderstood, describing some concerns about staff being fired as “ludicrous.”
A working group presented proposed changes to the policy to the board. KU professor Charles Epp, co-chairman of the group, said officials must be mindful of protecting free speech given that professors and students frequently are involved in activities that stir controversy.
“You are touching the third rail of higher education here,” Epp said.
But Logan and two other regents differed with a working group proposal that the social media policy be scrapped and replaced with an advisory policy on proper use.
Logan suggested adding the working group’s language emphasizing First Amendment protections and academic freedom, as well as a 1940 policy statement from the American Association of University Professors saying teachers “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.”
Epp and working group co-chairman Kevin Johnson, general counsel at Emporia State University, said they were encouraged by the proposed changes.
“We will have to see what the lawyers say this means in application. I’m heartened that they’ve included protections for academic freedom and an affirmation of First Amendment protections,” Epp said.