The Kansas Board of Regents released a revised social media policy Monday afternoon — incorporating language on academic freedoms while keeping in place the disciplinary clauses that have been a source of controversy.
Regent Chair Fred Logan said he’s pleased with the revisions, which will have to go before the full board at a May 14-15 meeting.
“I think it’s a good improvement,” Logan said.
He said he thinks the policy is “a sound one overall” and doesn’t view it as punitive.
The social media policy became subject to criticism from members of academia in December, when the board adopted the current policy that says university employees could be subject to disciplinary action — including termination — should faculty improperly use social media in ways that are “contrary to the best interests of the university” or “[impair] discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.”
The proposed revisions add support for academic freedom that wasn’t present in that policy.
The academic freedom language includes a 1940 statement from the American Association of University Professors that states when university teachers “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.”
Those obligations, according to the statement, include demonstrating respect for others’ opinions, exercising proper restraint, making accurate speech and marking speech as an employee’s own and not that of a university.
Kansas State University distinguished professor of English Philip Nel was one of 80 distinguished professors who signed a letter to the board this month, encouraging the adoption of recommendations from a work group assigned to make changes to the current policy.
Nel described the incorporation of both the disciplinary and academic freedom statements as “broad and incoherent. “
“It will still be at the very least, flawed,” he said just before the proposal was released.
The revisions that were publicized Monday were approved at this month’s regents meeting by the board’s governance committee.
Nel blogged about the revised proposal on his website, stating: “This new policy is at odds with itself. It begins by walking towards the light of open, unfettered inquiry, but then turns its back, barricading itself behind its insistence upon censure. In contradicting itself, the policy also negates itself.”
Nel was part of a discussion panel on Sunday in Lawrence where faculty, staff, students and community members discussed the policy.
The panel was organized by the Joint Council of Kansas Distinguished Professors – from K-State, the University of Kansas and Wichita State University.
Nel said the attendees discussed their next steps once the revised policy was released, in the event it should it be disagreeable. He said some university employees might show up at the May regents meeting, encourage universities in Kansas to adopt their own social media policies or adopt a unified statement about academic freedom.
Richard Levy, distinguished professor of constitutional law at KU Law School, was also on Sunday’s panel.
“It does make substantial changes, but the changes are not likely to satisfy all faculty,” Levy said after the proposal’s publication.
Levy said that under the revised policy, if private speech from university employees were deemed to not align with the best interests of the university —or violate any other terms in the social media policy — the speech would be weighed against the First Amendment and academic freedom clauses in the Pickering Balancing Test.
“To outweigh that, it would take an especially strong justification by the university,” Levy said.
But Levy said the new policy might not be constitutional if it produces an effect where people feel too inhibited to speak because of what is called the “void for vagueness” doctrine.
The doctrine makes a statute unenforceable if it’s too vague for an average citizen to understand.
“In the area of speech, the courts are especially concerned with what’s called the chilling effect,” Levy said. “When a policy is vague … people err on the side of caution and it causes a chilling effect, so that could be unconstitutional,” he said.
The Kansas Board of Regents is inviting comments on the revised policy until 5 p.m. on Friday.
Comments can be made by contacting the KBOR office or by visiting www.kansasregents.org.