Balancing Act

May 15, 2014

As New York University nears the end of a years-long process to regulate electronic communication, the institution is caught in a balancing act between protecting its students and the academic freedom of its faculty.

The ongoing feud between public institutions in Kansas and the state’s Board of Regents has been the most visible example of how colleges and universities grapple with regulating social media use, and that board approved a draft policy opposed by many faculty members Wednesday. The process at NYU actually predates that conflict. But what began several years ago as privacy concerns about the “Share This” function of websites and email spam has morphed into a broader collection of other policies about electronic communication in general -- too broad, according to some faculty members.

The original proposal did not originate from the faculty, but was drafted with input from administrators in the university relations and public affairs office, IT staffers and the institution’s legal counsel, said Ted Magder, associate professor of media, culture and communication. When the draft made it to the Faculty Senators Council in February 2013, faculty members questioned its motives, calling it “problematic in numerous respects.”

The revised draft, which was finally reviewed by the council last month after the issue was pushed to the bottom of the agenda by more pressing matters, seeks to address those concerns. It adds a paragraph on academic freedom and clarifies some of its terms, but it is unlikely to convert any skeptics.

Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of East Asian history who represents the Faculty of Arts and Science on the council, called it a “draconian and top-down policy that safeguards that operations and reputation of NYU” at the cost of freedom of expression.

“It’s characteristic of NYU to be very restrictive about what its faculty can do, rather than approving of what its faculty already does,” Karl, who has been a critical voice against the university’s administration, said. “It seems to me in the realm of the probationary rather than encouraging people to explore social media use.”

Indeed, the policy has less to say about appropriate uses of social media than about misuses.

Among the 15 examples of inappropriate use are “conduct that unreasonably and substantially interferes with a person’s academic or work performance, opportunities or benefits, or a person’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being”; “conduct that disrupts NYU operations or creates a foreseeable risk of doing so”; “[publishing] unauthorized digital images or video files depicting another to embarrass, socially ridicule, or defame that person”; and “prohibited electioneering.” The list is not exhaustive.

Even critics of the policy agree that there are potentially inappropriate uses of email and other media -- no one wants to see a student email a bomb threat to get out of finals or a professor trashing her students on social media, for example. But critics say that at an institution such as NYU, where faculty members regularly engage in tough debates with their colleagues and bosses, the sorts of criteria in the draft policy could limit free expression.

Magder pointed out that a list of every appropriate use of electronic communication “would be very long,” but added that “making some kind of quantitative argument that somehow the policy limits more speech that it protects ... would strike me as the wrong way to think about a policy.”

The paragraph on acceptable electronic communication reminds employees to adhere to federal, state and university policy and the terms of service of the companies behind the platforms -- Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and so on -- they use.

It also “encourages members of the university community to use electronic communications in a manner that is consistent with NYU’s academic mission, to employ common sense when using electronic communications, to write in a manner that is knowledgeable, accurate, truthful, and professional when using electronic communications, and to promptly correct errors where appropriate.”

“The cumulative effect of the misuses of electronic communication is that it seems to disallow the self-organization of faculty or of students around things that are oppositional to NYU,” Karl said. “It seems to really blur the boundary between freedom of expression in a wider sense and freedom of academic expression in the classroom.”

Some faculty members at NYU said they fear terms such as “prohibited electioneering” and “conduct that disrupts NYU operations” are too vague to be enforced.

“While references to preventing threatening behavior seem reasonable on the surface, this section of the policy could in fact be used to bring sanctions against faculty, staff, and students for such innocuous behavior as posting a picture of someone wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt,” Rebecca Goetz, assistant professor of history, suggested in a blog post last month. “There is NOTHING in this policy that would prevent administrative retaliation against a member of the faculty using perceived ‘threats’ as an excuse.”

But the policy was also fiercely defended by the faculty senators who have worked to tweak it over the last year.

“I think that’s a pretty wild and off-the-mark interpretation,“ said Magder, who sits on the council’s executive committee as the immediate past chair. He described Goetz’s blog as “misinformed,” saying “I think it’s irresponsible in the way it discusses the draft of the policy.”

Magder and Carol S. Reiss, professor of biology, both mentioned the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself after he was secretly recorded kissing another man, as one of the driving forces behind the policy.

“We know that the faculty are adults, and the faculty use judgment,” Reiss, who chaired the committee that worked to refine the policy, said. “The social media policy is really important for our students, who are vulnerable and impressionable and sometimes don’t know the kinds of judgment that would be important.”

The proposal has already been approved by the administrator- and student-run bodies of the Senate. Faculty senators will now gather input from their colleagues in the divisions and schools they represent. After meeting over the summer to take that feedback into consideration, the council is expected to vote on the proposal during their first regular meeting of the fall semester.

“I don’t think it will change at all,” Reiss said. “I think there will be more understanding of the policy, but I cannot foresee there being a reason to change the policy.”

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