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'Can I Tweet That?'

June 13, 2014

WASHINGTON -- From censored tweets to viral videos of professors’ partisan “rants,” numerous faculty members have found themselves in hot water over how they’ve used or been portrayed on social media in the past year. For faculty members at most colleges and universities, social media is a kind of “wild west” in which there are few – if any – articulated policies protecting professors’ right to tweet, post or otherwise share professional or personal thoughts (or to keep their thoughts private).

That’s a problem, said Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He delivered the plenary address at AAUP’s annual conference here Thursday, aptly called “Can I Tweet That?”

“We need policies, but what we need are good policies,” said Reichman, emphasizing that faculty members and their elected leaders should be involved in drafting such social media policies “from the get-go.”

As a counter example of a faculty-driven policy, Reichman pointed to what he called the “schizoid” document recently approved by the Kansas Board of Regents. The board wrote a first draft following a controversial tweet by David Guth, professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, about the National Rifle Assocation and the Navy Yard shootings in D.C. last year (for which he was put on paid leave and eventually took a planned sabbatical). The first draft of the policy was widely criticized because it allowed for disciplinary action, up to termination, for use of social media that any public university found objectionable. A later draft included language about academic freedom, but Reichman said it only paid “lip service” to the principle.

Rather than limit their professors’ extramural utterances, Reichman said, universities would do better to publicly distance themselves from professors’ controversial comments. AAUP maintains that professors should declare in extramural expressions that they are not speaking for the institutions, but Reichman said standards should be relaxed for social media.

“[You’ve got] 140 characters in a tweet,” Reichman said. “What can you do?”

Much of Reichman’s speech was based on AAUP’s "Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications" report, which was updated and expanded this year. Reichman (and the report, which he helped write) also addressed another problem faculty members increasingly face: students sharing professors' classroom statements on social media, without their permission.

One such incident is that involving William Penn, the professor of creative writing at Michigan State University who was suspended from teaching last year after a student videorecorded parts of a class in which he made fun of Republicans. The student shared the video with conservative blog, and it went viral. Another example is that of Rachel Slocum, the professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse who last year faced national criticism after a student tweeted an image of an internal class email in which the professor blamed the government shutdown on the Tea Party.

Reichman said that students should ask for a professor’s consent before recording or distributing lectures (other than for personal use related to a disability, for example). And email is subject to the same expectations of privacy as “snail mail,” he said.

Reichman admitted that the concept of the classroom as a closed space has a “thorny” history, in response to a question from audience member John K. Wilson, co-editor of AAUP's Academe blog, about the reasonable limits of such a stance. But Reichman said it was reasonable that professors have the right to say whether or not they're recorded, and that the university should “stand behind” them.

Of course, Reichman said, students can be “whistle blowers,” and professors who are “abusing” their positions “deserve” to be exposed.

Another gray area for AAUP regarding social media is live tweeting or sharing about professors’ preliminary research at conferences, Reichman said. “Professor So-and-So just made an outrageous argument,” he mock-tweeted to show that professors should “keep in mind the intellectual property rights of the author” as they report – accurately or otherwise – on preliminary findings.

“That’s a good faith assumption there,” he said.

In a separate conference session on academic freedom, staff members from the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, offered a similar overview of historical and recent threats to academic freedom, on and off the Internet. One emerging, possible threat, said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy is the “trigger warning” language that has started to appear on syllabuses. At many colleges, attempts to regulate or even suggest trigger warnings as a possible policy have angered faculty.

“Maybe we’ll be here with you next year, talking about cases arisen from [trigger warnings],” Creeley said. Reichman, who attended the session, said Committee A was opposed to blanket trigger warning policies and said AAUP is planning a forthcoming statement on them.

Bill Harbaugh, a conference attendee and professor of economics at the University of Oregon who has raised administrative ire in relation to his blog, UO Matters, said there does seem to be increasing administrative infringement on academic freedom in social media, which he attributed to a kind of self consciousness on the part of administrators.

With blogs and online newspapers, he said “information about [colleges' and universities'] sillier decisions and expensive policy mistakes is part of their permanent Google record," Harbaugh said.

But Wilson, who is also editor of AAUP’s Illinois Conference Academe journal, author of the book Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, and a scholar of the history of higher education, said it was important to put such accounts into historical context. There are many recent reports of violations of academic freedom, he said, but it’s unclear whether violations of academic freedom over all are on the rise or are just being more heavily and easily reported, due to the very mechanisms that have posed challenges for so many professors: social media and the rest of the Internet.

“It’s when you don’t hear about it that you worry," he said of infringement on academic freedom.

Wilson said that AAUP was right to take seriously such concerns, but that it was important to focus on other threats to academic freedom and higher education, as well. Bigger threats are structural in nature, he said, such as the “corporatization” of the university and the decline of full-time faculty. 

 

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