The Right to Tweet

April 10, 2014

Faculty members and staffers at public institutions in Kansas have doubled down on a policy that protects their right to express their opinions on social media. The proposal now heads to the Kansas Board of Regents, where it faces uncertain prospects.

The finalized policy follows a four-month effort by a workgroup of faculty and staff representatives from the state’s six public four-year institutions. The board ordered the formation of the workgroup after faculty outrage flared in response to a set of controversial social media guidelines proposed last December. Under those rules, an employee could be fired for "improper use of social media," which faculty members and free speech advocates said could have posed a threat to academic freedom.

When the board receives the policy proposal next week, it will have been nearly seven months since the controversy first began with an incendiary tweet about the Sept. 16 Navy Yard massacre in Washington, D.C. 

A draft of the policy, published last month, quoted the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles as it established faculty and staff members’ right to “speak on matters of public concern as private citizens, if they choose to do so.” Apart from a handful of wording changes, an added reference to academic freedom and a reminder that social media use shouldn’t violate “existing university or Board of Regents policies,” the final proposal is virtually identical to the draft.

Faculty members who want to weigh in on politics or criticize their campus leaders would in other words be free to speak out.

"The revised policy is one that is written to reassure people, without changing anything that already exists,” the report reads. “It does not create new rights nor does it enlarge existing rights, the revised policy merely affirms rights.”

Despite the seemingly minor changes, Charles R. Epp, the University of Kansas professor of public affairs and administration who co-chaired the workgroup, said the interest in how, or if, to regulate social media continues to be a topic of fierce debate across the state’s campuses.

“The level of concern among faculty and staff at Kansas universities about this question is pretty high,” Epp said. “I think it’s clear from the comments that there’s an awful lot of support for the proposed revisions that we are recommending. There’s a degree of cautious optimism that we’ll be seriously heard.”

Epp said the workgroup received “a couple of hundred” comments -- 101 from KU faculty alone -- during the three weeks that the group solicited input. Most of the comments were “overwhelmingly positive,” he said, while some questioned the need for a specific social media policy in the first place. Many colleges and universities have rolled their social media policies into general codes of conduct. 

“One thing that needs to be said is faculty and staff at universities do accept certain responsibilities in engaging in communication, but it has to be emphasized what those are,” Epp said. “I would not want to accept a policy that in any way would evaluate an idea on the basis of controversy.”

The workgroup examined the policies of more than 75 public and private institutions to help guide its work, according to the report. 

“The common characteristic ... whether they’re formal policies or informal guidelines, is basically to remind faculty and staff of existing rules that might implicate uses of social media,” Epp said. “What we’re recommending is that that model be followed here as well. It doesn’t hurt to offer reminders. There may be some benefit to it."

Some of the other "reminders" in the policy include sections on speech not protected by the First Amendment and information covered by privacy law.

A spokeswoman for the Kansas Board of Regents declined to comment on the proposal. She said the governance committee will receive the report on April 16, and that the full board will not take any action until its meeting in mid-May at the earliest.

Epp said he didn’t want to speculate on the board’s response. “I can’t speak for the group on whether they’re interested in carrying on a negotiation or a process of discussion with the board, but I certainly would be very happy to entertain that possibility if they want,” he said.

Several of the institutions in the system, including Emporia, Pittsburg and Wichita State Universities, did not comment specifically on the policy, but said they supported the efforts of the workgroup.

Faculty members at KU, however, will during a regular meeting tomorrow move to endorse the policy, Christopher Steadham, president of the Faculty Senate there, said in an email. “I anticipate we will pass a resolution supporting the proposal and recommending its adoption,” he wrote.

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