TOPEKA – A bill before the Kansas House would prohibit employees of Kansas universities and colleges from using their official job titles on any opinion pieces or letters-to-the-editor published in newspapers, with some exceptions.
The proposed bill would apply only when the subject of an opinion piece is an elected official, a candidate or a matter pending before a government body. It does not extend to other forms of media.
Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, who is chairman of the House Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, compared the proposal to restrictions placed on employees of private companies.
“There’s 100 newspaper articles printed bashing people and using the university name, and if I work for John Deere, AT&T, or whatever, if I use my official title to make a comment without approval, they’re not going to let me do that,” Seiwert said. “I’ve worked for several major companies. I couldn’t make statements unless there’s a policy.”
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Some opponents said the bill could stifle public discussion and present constitutional problems.
“This bill seems on its face to be unconstitutional,” Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, wrote in an email.
“Both the U.S. and Kansas Constitutions allow for unfettered freedom of speech and of the press. Those sacred documents don’t say ‘except if you’re a college professor who has an opinion.’ ”
Bob Beatty and Mark Peterson, political science professors at Washburn University, say they don’t use Washburn’s name in the biographical descriptions for their columns because the university asked them not to in order to avoid potential conflicts with lawmakers in Topeka.
But Peterson said a state law prohibiting the use of official titles on opinion columns was “a horse of an entirely different color.”
Several university professor write columns in a syndicated statewide service called Insight Kansas, which is used by many of the state’s newspapers. Emporia State University associate political science professor Michael Smith, who contributes to Insight, said the bill would not stop the columns.
“I am appalled at the controlling nature of this measure,” said John Montgomery, editor and publisher of the Hutchinson News.
“Just like moderate legislators who don’t toe the administration line getting targeted for defeat at the next election, this appears to be aimed at punishing, if not silencing, state employees for expressing opinions contrary to the powers that be in Topeka.
“It’s especially troubling because at our universities we should be promoting critical thinking and free expression, not suppressing it.”