In September, the University of Kansas suspended David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor, after he responded to the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard with this comment on Twitter: "#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you."
Many pro-gun politicians called for Guth to be fired, but he kept his job and the suspension has since been lifted. Officials also learned that the state's public universities didn't have a policy that explicitly permitted the dismissal of faculty members and other employees over their use of social media.
On Wednesday, the Kansas Board of Regents changed that, and adopted rules under which faculty members and other employees can be fired for "improper use of social media" -- and some parts of the policy are already drawing harsh criticism from faculty leaders.
The policy outlines a number of reasons why any employee could be dismissed over social media postings. Some reasons -- such as inciting violence or revealing confidential student information -- aren't causing alarm. But others, faculty advocates say, could severely limit faculty free speech.
For example, one definition of improper use is communication that "when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee's official duties, is contrary to the best interest of the university." Another is communication that "impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker's official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university's ability to efficiently provide services."
Further, the policy says that, in evaluating social media use that may be improper, the university chief executive should "balance the interest of the university in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees against the employee's right as a citizen to speak on matters of public concern, and may consider the employee's position within the university and whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university. The chief executive officer may also consider whether the communication was made during the employee's working hours or the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment."
The board voted to adopt the policy despite being asked by faculty leaders in the state, according to local news media accounts, to delay a vote to permit more discussion with professors about the ramifications of the rules. A statement released by the board explained the need for a policy this way: "Because of the proliferation of social media use for communication purposes, and its particular susceptibility to misuse and damage to our universities, the board believes that a provision outlining improper uses of social media will be beneficial to all parties and uphold the universities’ need to operate in an efficient and effective manner."
The Kansas rules were adopted the same month that the American Association of University Professors issued a draft report on academic freedom in the digital era -- a report calling for as full protection of faculty speech online as in person.
Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University East Bay and chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said via email that the Kansas policy "raises significant questions about academic freedom" -- and that it contradicts the principles of the recent AAUP report.
The Kansas policy has "all sorts of red flags," Reichman said. For instance, he asked who would define what is "contrary to the best interests of the university"? Asked Reichman: "If a faculty member disagrees with an administration policy and as part of their official duties serving on a university committee speaks out about it, this could under this policy lead to termination."
Reichman also called much of the policy "severely overbroad." For example, the policy would appear to cover any social media use that sets off controversy by classifying as improper actions on social media that hurt "harmony among co-workers."
The Kansas policy defines social media as "including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube."
Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University, blogged Wednesday night that "as faculty grade their last student papers and exams before leaving town for the Christmas holidays, the Kansas Board of Regents quietly — and unanimously — voted to revoke their academic freedom and basic right to freedom of speech."
Nel added that the definitions in the policy were so broad that "[i]n essence, anything can be grounds for firing.... So, for example, if the university decides that this blog post is 'improper use of social media,' it can fire me. Posting a link to this blog post via Twitter and Facebook (which I will do as soon as I finish writing it) could, if deemed 'improper use of social media,' also be grounds for firing me."