Somewhat like a close referees’ call at a football game, the new social media policy the Kansas Board of Regents passed in December is under review.
The board announced in a news release recently it would take another look at the policy it just passed. There is considerable opposition to the new policy in the state, and now the policy has attracted national attention, especially in the academic field.
The policy’s passage was more or less a reaction to a Tweet (a comment on the social media site Twitter) in September by a University of Kansas journalism professor, David Guth. His negative comment about the National Rifle Association, which many people in Kansas and nationally found offensive, was his reaction to a mass shooting. His comment stated in part, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”
Social media sites on the Internet are like conversations in many ways – often instant reactions to situations, sometimes written without much thought. Sometimes it’s like seeing the instant response of a person who hits his thumb with a hammer. Other times it resembles a personal diary, and it appears that some people are not aware that their comments could be seen by other people besides their friends. There is only room for one or two sentences on a Twitter comment. Like a headline, many of the qualifiers we often use in writing and speaking, and most of the details, are usually cut away to leave just one idea. Instead of explaining, we are exclaiming much of the time when we use Twitter. It’s my opinion that the remark in question was not an incitement to action, but more of a comment on a situation.
The new social media policy says the university president may suspend, dismiss or terminate faculty or staff members who make improper use of social media. “Improper” includes directly inciting violence or breach of peace; disclosing confidential information without authority; impairing discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers; interfering with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affecting the university's ability to efficiently provide services, and some other items. There is a vague provision on “when made pursuant to (in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the university.”
Regardless of whether the comment in question was offensive, under a close review it will become obvious that the new social media policy should be thrown out.
In the world of ideas, the world that professors inhabit, there is no need to worry about overseeing speech. We live in a society where good ideas will flourish, while bad ideas will not. Should a person happen to toss off a bad idea, such as a Twitter comment that is too extreme, reasonable people will discard it. There is no need for any limiting of speech at all.
What will happen if freedom of speech is limited? Professors and college instructors need full academic freedom, including freedom of speech, to do their very important work. Sometimes, in the course of their work, instructors are going to challenge their students and say things that make people uncomfortable. They will say things that make people think. They will encourage students to take a closer look at conventional wisdom, at old wives’ tales, or at existing scientific theories. Advances in knowledge and science are not possible if the existing theories are never questioned. Professors will have succeeded if they have taught their students to think for themselves, rather than accept whatever is handed to them. Too bad if others don’t like it. That’s part of the professors’ job.
The regents should take their focus off the colleges’ reputation, and instead put it on the advancement of knowledge and learning.
Limiting professors’ speech, including their comments on social media, will only serve to ensure mediocrity. Nothing great was ever accomplished by people who are afraid of what others will think. People who are worried about losing their jobs will not take the sort of risks that will lead to the advancement of knowledge and make a university great.
In fact, I would not be surprised if some of the best professors in Kansas are dusting off their resumes and preparing to leave for other states, rather than put up with limits on their speech.
The Kansas Board of Regents made a similar mistake on limiting academic speech in 1897 when it fired many faculty members at Kansas State University, then known as Kansas State Agricultural College.
The faculty members were dragging their feet on implementing Populist (or People’s) Party ideas in their teaching. The Board of Regents was taken over by the Populists from 1895 to 1899, according to a 1925 thesis by Virginia Gibson that is on file at the K-State library. Populists controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office.
The Populists were understandably upset about the decline of the family farm after droughts and crop failures, and had created their own national platform, reforms that would help small farmers and not big businesses. While they may have had some good ideas, they lacked judgment as they tried to force others to adopt their platform. They tried to change the curriculum at K-State and get the professors, many of whom were apparently hidebound Republicans, to teach their ideas, and fired faculty members when they did not go along with Populist ideas.
Interestingly, “efficiency” has been cited by the Board of Regents both in 2013 and in 1898 as a reason for interfering with the freedom of speech of its professors.
A news release from the Board of Regents on Dec. 18, 2013, stated, “Because of the proliferation of social media use for communication purposes, and its particular susceptibility to misuse and damage to our universities, the Board believes that a provision outlining improper uses of social media will be beneficial to all parties and uphold the universities’ need to operate in an efficient and effective manner.”
According to Gibson, in 1898 the Regents (then Populists), “declared their sole object was to raise the standard, increase the efficiency, and enlarge the usefulness of the college.”
Luckily for Kansas, after several years the Populists were no longer in power and no longer tried to force the state colleges to teach their political ideas. About a century later, another Kansas board, the state Board of Education, tried to tell public schools what to teach on the science topic of evolution, with some proposed changes based on religious beliefs. Now we have the next national flap involving Kansas education, this one the limitation on freedom of speech on social media.
Every time, it’s always best for our governing boards to hire leading people in their field and let them have the academic freedom and the freedom of speech to teach their subject, and to comment on current events as they see fit. Students deserve to be taught real information by professors who are at the top of their field, and not to be interfered with by people who are overly worried about reputations. Anything else is to invite mediocrity.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email email@example.com.