Regents endanger rights on social media

Staff Editorial

The state’s governing body of higher education has used one professor’s words to justify action that is an ill-advised overreach, at best.

Why did they do this?

The move to adopt a policy that allows Kansas Board of Regents universities to regulate their employees’ expression on social media came after David Guth, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas (KU), posted a controversial message on Twitter in September 2013.
Guth might have been a little extreme, but the Regents are completely out of line.
With the appointment of officials on Jan. 17 from Pittsburg State and its five sister institutions, steps have been taken toward what we hope will be a reversal of this policy that constitutes a bald-faced infringement of free-speech rights.
If the Regents will not act, it is imperative that a third party take immediate action.

Reckless language

It’s hard to understand why this policy made it into the books as written.
“The chief executive officer of a state university has the authority,” it reads, “to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.”
It includes several provisions defining “improper use.”
Few will object to the restrictions limiting posts that incite violence and expose confidential student information, but one section is alarming.
It permits administrators to restrict social media in the “best interests of the university” without defining exactly what that means. Essentially, they now have free rein to restrict speech based on their subjective judgment alone.

Must faculty toe the line?

Posts that criticize Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies or actions by the state legislature may not be perceived as under the umbrella of a university’s “best interests.”
What happens when a state official complains about some
political commentary on a professor’s Twitter feed? How much latitude does the university have in restricting the author? Can that person’s job be threatened? That is all suspiciously unclear.
It should be a founding principle of all educational institutions to allow speech, even confrontational or insensitive speech, to be as unregulated as possible.
That ought to apply even just within the classroom; this policy extends outside of it, to the entire world.
In creating the policy, the regents have stifled the freedom of public employees for fear of what they may say. The result is a restriction of a basic right in academia, which should promote the sharing of ideas above all else.
The regents need to realize that while unchecked use of social media may have its occasional casualties, the protection of free speech is worth the cost.
This editorial is co-written by Marcus Clem, Collegio editor, and Kathleen Martin, editor of Wichita State’s Sunflower, and is cross-published in The Collegio and The Sunflower.

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