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A Lump of Coal for Kansas
December 19, 2013 - 10:15pm

Earlier this week, I mentioned my suspicion that part of the reason that the Adler case in Colorado was attracting so much attention is that it’s the increasingly rare no-brainer. 

Now, Kansas decides to up the ante. I may have to rethink my assumption that no-brainers are increasingly rare..  This makes two in a single week.

The Kansas Board of Regents has adopted a social media policy that, among other things, bans any communication that “impairs...harmony among co-workers.” I think of this as the “more trouble than you’re worth” clause. 

I can’t imagine how that would hold up in court. How do you measure harmony among co-workers? To the extent that you can, how do you prove causality? And what about when the “harmony” is either forced -- as it almost certainly would be under this policy -- or, worse, a form of delusional groupthink? What if the groupthink involves, say, discrimination?

If the policy is upheld, it’s obviously death to any form of meaningful shared governance. As any battle-scarred academic can tell you, shared governance relies on robust debate. If disagreement is criminalized, good luck with robust debate.

To the extent that I can envision a counterargument, it would rely on a distinction between internal and external audiences. A meeting of a college senate is internal to the college; a tweet can reach the world. 

That strikes me as a very good reason to ban the sharing of certain sorts of information. For example, a tweet that said “hey world, that ratfink Dave’s social security number is…” should be out of bounds. So should personal threats, libel, and the sorts of things that freedom of speech or of the press wouldn’t ordinarily cover. 

But moving from “don’t reveal launch codes” to “don’t criticize anybody” is a bit much. Yes, some people can be a pain. That’s the price of working with independent, intelligent, creative people.  Squelching any sort of dissent will drive some good people away, drive others underground, and drive many to check out on the job. Assuming it lasted, which it won’t, it would be toxic to the functioning of the university.

My guess is that it’s somewhere between a knee-jerk gesture and an opening bid.  Public universities in many states are (rightly) afraid of what legislators on a tear are capable of doing.  By preventing public scandals, the regents are probably trying to avoid provoking the state government. Even overshooting as badly as this policy does, they’re probably hoping to make a statement and get folks to think twice before doing something they’ll have to try to explain.

I get that, but this is so cartoonish that it’ll surely backfire.  The secret to an effective opening bid is some basic level of plausibility. This policy is so absurdly broad that it can’t help but blow up. In fact, I suspect some canny faculty are already devising a really good test case to bring to federal court.  If all it takes is a tweet, it shouldn’t be hard. This is a battle the regents can’t win.

So a lump of coal for the Kansas Board of Regents this week, and a genuine hope that they reconsider this policy before actually enforcing it.

Program note: This is the last post before the break. See you in 2014!

 

 

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