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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Kansas regents social media rules supress free speech

Friday, December 20, 2013 | 11:53 a.m. CST; updated 4:08 p.m. CST, Friday, December 20, 2013

The Kansas Board of Regents blew it.

That’s the simplest way to sum up the board’s arbitrary and wrongheaded attempt to create a policy regarding employees’ use of social media at the state’s six universities.

The policy is in response to the uproar created by a University of Kansas professor’s inappropriate tweet and appears to be a ham-handed attempt to mollify conservatives in the state Legislature.

It was devised with no input from faculty members, and it shows. In giving university leaders the authority to discipline or terminate even tenured professors for vague, subjective offenses, the regents have set up a chilling environment that runs contrary to the ideal of academic freedom.

Few will object to the new policy’s prohibitions on using social media to incite violence or disclose confidential student information.

But the policy also says employees cannot post material on the Internet that “is contrary to the best interest of the university.” Who decides that? Given the thin-skinned nature of some Kansas politicians, a blog post critical of the state Legislature may not reflect the best interest of the university. But professors should absolutely be protected for speaking out.

Under the policy, an employee could also get in trouble if a post imperils working relationships at the university or interferes with a school’s regular operations. But most universities are seething hotbeds of rivalries and intrigue. It needn’t take much to temporarily imperil working relationships. The prohibition against interfering with a school’s operations sets up the possibility that an employee could be fired if a social media post created an unintended consequence.

After its unveiling on Wednesday, the policy was quickly denounced by faculty groups nationwide, including the American Association of University Professors, which said it raised “significant questions about academic freedom.”

By Thursday, the regents appeared to be backpedaling. A spokeswoman said the policy was intended as “a guidance document” for universities, not a mandate.

But that’s not good enough. Kansas needs great universities that do not suppress speech, ideas or blog posts. The Board of Regents should get this confusing, stifling policy off of its books.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.


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