The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday finalized a controversial social media policy that places broad limits on employees and is being criticized as one of the most restrictive in the country.
Regents Chairman Fred Logan, speaking to a packed meeting in Topeka, defended the policy, claiming it will shore up academic freedom by creating more specific guidelines.
“In many respects, the work that has been done has really focused on lifting up academic freedom as a core principal for the Kansas Board of Regents,” Logan said. “Now, that may sound funny, but if you look in our policy manual, there’s really not much in there about that.”
Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a University of Kansas associate professor who represents the American Association of University Professors, said his group was “profoundly disappointed” by the board’s passing a “fundamentally un-American” policy.
“The most disturbing aspects of what they have done, is they have connected punitive measures to lawful speech,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “We believe that not only runs against the principles of academic freedom but the principles of free speech in our very nation.”
The association, among other national groups, may consider a legal change to the policy, he said.
The policy was first floated in December in response to a Twitter post by a KU associate journalism professor, David Guth, who said the NRA was responsible for the deadly shootings in September at the Navy Yard in Washington. He later apologized, but was placed on administrative leave. He spent spring semester on sabbatical in western Kansas, but still speaks out on his blog.
The policy drew fire because it carried a prohibition on employees saying anything that would be “contrary to the best interest of the university” and tied that to disciplinary measures, like outright firing. The plan also banned directly inciting violence, and disclosing confidential student information, other protected data and confidential research.
After the policy drew so much outrage, Logan appointed a working group to make revisions. The board largely ignored the group’s suggestions but did add language emphasizing First Amendment protections and academic freedom, including a 1940 American Association of University Professors policy saying teachers "should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations."
The broad nature of the guidelines would offer administrators enormous latitude in firing people – even those with tenure, critics say. Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Kansas’ new rule is one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country.
“We have a First Amendment to protect controversial statements like Professor Guth’s. We don’t have it to protect pictures of kittens posted on Facebook,” Creeley said. “If you punish a student or professor for a clearly protected speech, you send a message to everyone else on campus that you better watch what you say.”
Many professors no longer place their lectures on YouTube or Facebook, Barrett-Gonzalez said, and they have toned down teaching on controversial subjects like politics, gun rights and abortion.
“Quite a number of faculty, staff and students have changed their behavior both in their personal and professional lives on social media as a result of this policy,” he said. “We believe that a court should potentially hear these kinds of anecdotes and then decide.”