Critics challenge Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy

Opposition is snowballing against a new policy aimed at how faculty and staff at Kansas universities use social media.

Two national education groups have condemned the policy, arguing that it threatens the First Amendment rights and academic freedoms enjoyed by faculty.

And faculty are increasingly voicing their opposition to the policy, most recently Monday when 40 distinguished professors at Kansas State University called for the policy to be repealed.

“I think this is going to have to be changed,” said Phil Nel, a K-State English professor who signed the letter sent to the Kansas Board of Regents.

“If it isn’t changed there will be no Regents’ university worth the name because you literally cannot have a university under those conditions.”

The Regents adopted the policy after a University of Kansas journalism professor used Twitter to wish violence against the families of National Rifle Association members following a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

The policy gives a university’s top leader the power to suspend or fire any faculty member or staffer who improperly uses social media, including Facebook or Twitter.

The policy’s list of improper uses includes communications that incite violence; that disclose student information or research data; that are “contrary to the best interest of the university”; that impair “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers”; or that have “a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”

The policy calls for the school’s top administrator to balance the employee’s right to speak as a citizen on a public issue against the university’s interest of “promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs.”

Critics say the policy is vague and subjective and inevitably will infringe on faculty members’ free speech rights.

They particularly point to the clause that suggests a communication could be improper if it disrupts the harmony of co-workers or if it interferes with working relationships for which “personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”

The American Association of University Professors said those clauses could lead to professors being fired if they disagree with university policies or their colleagues online.

“Nothing could tarnish the image of universities in Kansas more than adoption of ill-considered policies like this one,” the organization wrote on its website.

The Board of Regents, which governs the state’s six public universities, said its goal was to develop a constitutionally sound policy that didn’t violate free speech or due process rights of university employees.

“The board was very careful to draft a very narrow policy that in our view protects First Amendment rights but also acknowledges there are responsibilities to the universities as the employer,” said Regents Chairman Fred Logan of Prairie Village. “I feel strongly the board succeeded in that.”

In an interview Tuesday, Logan stressed that the policy could be tweaked as the board receives reaction.

“Any time the board drafts a policy, it becomes part of an ongoing conversation with everybody in higher education and this policy is no different,” Logan said. “We respect the views of everybody and we invite the views of everybody on policies that we adopt.”

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Logan asking for the policy to be rescinded.

The group — known as the American Civil Liberties Union of college campuses — said the policy is so nebulous that it would be hard to know what social media expression would violate it.

The group argues that a debate on Twitter between two professors over competing economic theories could violate the policy if it’s determined that the discussion “impairs harmony” between co-workers.

“The Kansas Board of Regents has gone too far in trying to regulate the speech of professor. They leave too much discretion in the hands of administrators to regulate speech,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the the group.

“Those kind of restrictions don’t stand up to lawsuits, but they also end up generally being a bad idea.”