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Regents OK social media policy

By Bethany Knipp

TOPEKA — A social media policy that supports academic freedom while retaining disciplinary language for those who abuse it is here to stay.

The Kansas Board of Regents unanimously passed a revised version of the social media policy it adopted in December on Wednesday with no debate in a crowded, standing-room-only board room.

“This will be the strongest and most explicit statement in support of academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual,” Chairman Fred Logan said moments before its passing. 

The board first adopted a policy regulating social media use in December in response to a University of Kansas journalism professor, David Guth, who tweeted about the National Rifle Association after the September 2013 Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.

Strong protests from the academic community about the policy’s restrictions on speech and disciplinary language prompted the board to create a work group to suggest changes to the policy. The board of regents in April released a proposed revision of the policy that retained that disciplinary language.

Under both the old and new policies, employees within the regents’ state school system — consisting of Kansas State University, KU, Wichita State University, Pittsburg State University, Fort Hays State University and Emporia University — can be fired for use of social media that does not align with the best interests of the university or that impairs harmony among co-workers, according to the policy.

On Wednesday, more than 30 faculty members from various universities stood up before the regents in protest of the proposal.

“Today, we stand before the board once again reiterating our unanimous opposition to the chilling effect created by the punitive aspects of this policy,” said Sheryl Lidzy, an associate professor of communication at ESU. She spoke for the faculty before the board as a member of the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents.

“A university system cannot function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable,” she said. 

“The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment, and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy,” she said.

Though Lidzy said the faculty felt that the board ultimately had the employees’ best interests in mind, the policy would “continue to be plagued with opposition and controversy as long as it exists.”

The regents looked uncomfortable during Lidzy’s statement, but Logan then praised faculty, and Lidzy personally.

“This board has the utmost respect for the members of the faculty in this state in our universities,” Logan said. “We see you as our partners, all of you, even if there’s a disagreement,” he said.

The faculty members wore black or gray T-shirts that read “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty and Discipline” along with red “Free Speech” stickers.

The T-shirts’ language was inspired by the policy’s punitive language and the questions arising from it, according to the blog of K-State’s Philip Nel, distinguished professor of English.

Following Lidzy’s speech, the regents’ general counsel, Julene Miller, told the board about the policy’s revisions, which include changing the policy’s name from “Improper Use of Social Media” to “Use of Social Media by Faculty and Staff,” adopting a 1940 statement from the American Association of University professors that supports academic freedom and the First Amendment.

It also clarifies that the social media policy does not apply to email.

Miller said the policy has been reviewed by the attorney general’s office and that the regents office was advised it is constitutionally sound from a First Amendment perspective.

The policy passed swiftly without any supporting or dissenting opinions from the board.

“They said they affirmed freedom of speech, while of course they passed a policy that did not do that,” Nel said. “They are good at speaking out of both sides of their face, and we saw that on display today,”

Elizabeth Dodd, also a K-State distinguished professor of English, said faculty members likely would discuss the issue further after summer break.

“Despite the comments from the board of regents about their support of academic freedom this is a very disturbing and chilling policy,” she said.

Logan said he thought the policy would have little effect on faculty and staff.

“Our policy is so narrowly drawn, there is a very, very limited chance, in my opinion, that it’s gonna have much application,” he said. “It provides guidance to university officials, but it doesn’t do anything new. This is the same analysis that a university president or chancellor would have gone through if the policy hadn’t been adopted.”

He said the board adopted the policy not because the progressive disciplinary measures are new, but because social media is new.

“Social media is a different kind of challenge for everybody because people are tweeting all of the time, they’re posting all of the time, and so, providing some guidance, I think, will be helpful,” he said.

Logan said the board would review the policy in a year.

K-State President Kirk Schulz said the next steps for his university would be to talk to student and faculty governance groups about how the policy should be implemented properly.

“To me, now, we need to really start those conversations in earnest,” he said. He hopes by the fall, K-State will have a “reasonable” approach in place.

“A lot of people still aren’t happy about where it is, but I think the regents have made an honorable effort to take those comments and modify the policy,” he said.

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