Status quo restricts free speech

Regents should amend or even drop policy

By The Mercury

We’re still puzzled by the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy about social media usage by university employees.

As a committee begins work on revising it, we still think it’s best to throw out the policy and start over. But at the very least, we’d like some explanations.

Let’s go back and review: The Board of Regents, which governs the state’s university system, last month approved a policy to allow college presidents to fire employees “for improper use of social media.” Improper use is defined in a way to include putting something on social media that is deemed by the president to be “contrary to the best interests of the university.”

On its face, that appears to be a blank check to allow a college president to run off anybody he doesn’t like. But the Board of Regents is not staffed or run by idiots, nor is the office of the Attorney General, who checked off on the constitutionality.

The Mercury went looking for the legal arguments to try to make an independent judgment about that, but we got shut down at every step. Neither the Regents nor the Attorney General would hand over any relevant records, saying they were exempt from disclosure laws. After checking with our lawyers, we’ll grant them that point.

But it’s still best for the sake of public knowledge to explain how it is that the policy doesn’t violate employees’ free-speech rights.

Our understanding, based on what lawyers tell us, is that the exact language of the policy is drawn from Supreme Court cases on related subjects. So it might very well be defensible, strictly on legal grounds.

But here’s the larger point: It’s not worth it.

If it’s constitutionally acceptable to punish an employee for saying something really stupid on social media — or in some other forum, for that matter — then it seems to us that universities could simply go ahead and do that. They don’t really need a policy.

By enacting the policy, the Regents sent a message that has reverberated across the country. Unfortunately, that message has made Kansas seem an inhospitable place to academic debate.

Simplest solution: Ditch the policy. Acknowledge that it’s not needed and move on down the road.

Otherwise, let’s engage a real debate about whether this really does restrict free-speech rights. And then amend it so that it sends a different message entirely.

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