In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet

May 14, 2014
Originally published on May 15, 2014 2:17 pm

The Kansas Board of Regents gave final approval Wednesday to a strict new policy on what employees may say on social media. Critics say the policy violates both the First Amendment and academic freedom, but school officials say providing faculty with more specific guidelines will actually bolster academic freedom on campus.

The controversial policy was triggered by an equally controversial tweet posted last September by David Guth, an associate journalism professor. Reacting to a lone gunman who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., he wrote:

"The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters."

Guth was placed on administrative leave after an outcry from the public and state lawmakers.

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a member of the Kansas House of Representatives and the National Rifle Association, says he was outraged by the tweet. He supports the board of regents' new policy to place parameters on professors.

"Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can't go this far," he says. "I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the board of regents on what's acceptable and what's not is better for everyone involved."

The new policy says that faculty and staff of the state's six universities, 19 community colleges and six technical colleges may not say anything on social media that would incite violence, disclose confidential student information or release protected data. But it also says staffers are barred from saying anything "contrary to the best interests of the university."

Critics say the broad nature of the guidelines would offer administrators enormous latitude in firing people — even those with tenure.

Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says it's one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country.

"We have a First Amendment to protect controversial statements like professor Guth's," Creeley says. "We don't have it to protect pictures of kittens posted on Facebook. 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."

Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis says the regents are scared of Kansas lawmakers. "All of this has to be taken into account in the context of a very, very conservative Kansas Legislature that has very little sympathy, I think, for higher education," Loomis says. The board of regents is appointed by the state's Republican governor, Sam Brownback.

Last December, when the board of regents first announced that a new policy was in the works, Loomis posted this reaction on Facebook: "Unbelievably broad and vague set of policies. Perfect example of using a nuclear weapon to destroy a gnat of a pseudo problem."

The board of regents chairman, Fred Logan, has dismissed the controversy over the policy as "ludicrous." He defended the new policy and said it would 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 principle for the Kansas Board of Regents," Logan says. "Now, that may sound funny, but if you look in our policy manual, there's really not much in there about that."

As for Guth, the professor who triggered the policy, he spent this semester on sabbatical in far western Kansas. But he's still talking; on his blog, he writes, "How can a guy talk to students about social media if he doesn't participate in the online discussion?"

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Today, the Kansas Board of Regents gave final approval to a strict new policy on what its employees can say on social media. Critics say it violates the First Amendment and academic freedom.

Peggy Lowe of member station KCUR reports on a controversial policy that was triggered by an equally-controversial tweet.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: That tweet was posted last September by David Guth, an associate journalism professor. Reacting to a lone gunman killing 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, he wrote: The blood is on the hands of the NRA. Next time, let it be your sons and daughters. Guth was placed on administrative leave after an outcry by the public and lawmakers.

REPRESENTATIVE TRAVIS COUTURE-LOVELADY: Well, I was outraged, actually.

LOWE: That's Representative Travis Couture-Lovelady, a member of the Kansas House and a member of the National Rifle Association. He supports the Board of Regents' new policy to place parameters on professors.

COUTURE-LOVELADY: Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can't go this far, so I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the Board of Regents on what's acceptable and what's not is better for everyone involved.

LOWE: The new policy says faculty and staff may not say anything on social media that would incite violence, disclose confidential student information, or release protected data. But it also says staffers are barred from saying anything, quote, "contrary to the best interests of the university." Critics say the broad nature of the guidelines would offer administrators enormous latitude in firing people, even those with tenure.

Will Creeley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says it is one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country.

WILL CREELEY: I mean, 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. If you punish a student or a professor for a clearly protected speech, you send a message to everyone else on campus that you better watch what you say.

BURDETT LOOMIS: All of this has to be taken into account in the context of a very, very conservative Kansas legislature that has very little sympathy, I think, for higher education.

LOWE: That's KU political science professor Burdett Loomis, who says the Regents are scared of Kansas lawmakers, who hold the university's purse strings. And the Board is appointed by the governor, conservative Republican Sam Brownback. Loomis scrolls down his Facebook page to recall the reaction he posted last December, when the Regents first announced a new policy was in the works.

LOOMIS: OK, OK, here we go. This is right when it came out. Unbelievably broad and vague set of policies. Perfect example of using a nuclear weapon to destroy a gnat of a pseudo problem.

LOWE: Chair of the Board of Regents Fred Logan dismissed that controversy about the policy as ludicrous. When it was finalized at today's meeting, he defended the new policy and even claimed it would shore up academic freedom by creating more specific guidelines.

FRED LOGAN: 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. Now, that may sound funny, but if you look in our policy manual, there's really not much in there about that.

LOWE: And the professor who triggered the policy? David Guth spent this semester on a sabbatical in far western Kansas. But he's still talking. For the last several months his personal blog has read: How can a guy talk to students about social media if he doesn't participate in the online discussion?

For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.