Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Regents call for review of recently approved social media policy

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — Less than two weeks after approving a controversial policy governing the use of social media, the Kansas Board of Regents on Tuesday indicated it may reconsider.

In a two-sentence news release, Regents Chairman Fred Logan said he has asked Andy Tompkins, the president and chief executive officer of the regents, to form a group of representatives from each state university to review the policy.

Citing publicly raised concerns about the measure, Logan said he would like any recommendations for amendments to the policy to be presented to the regents’ governance committee in April.

On Dec. 18, the regents unanimously approved a policy that allows university heads to fire faculty and staff for improper use of social media, which included posting messages that conflicted with the best interests of the school.

That policy remains in place, but the decision to look at the issue again was cheered by Ronald Barrett-Gonzalez, president of the Kansas conference of the American Association of University Professors.

“This is a good turn of events,” said Barrett-Gonzalez, who is an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Kansas University. “I would encourage the regents to listen to the rank and file faculty and those national entities that basically are overseers and watchdogs of free speech,” he said.

Shortly after the social media policy was adopted, faculty and staff groups complained that the provisions were too broad and would interfere with free speech rights.

The AAUP condemned the policy as a “gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom that have been the cornerstone of American higher education for nearly a century.”

Barrett-Gonzalez said news about the social media restrictions circulated internationally and cast Kansas in a negative light and probably persuaded some teachers to decline job offers in the state.

“I’ve been getting the annual Christmas calls and New Year’s calls," he said, "and they’re not asking how is the wife and kids, they’re saying, ‘Good grief, what is going on in Kansas?’”

When the policy was adopted, regents defended it as respecting free speech while trying to contain the damage a university may receive from a tweet or Facebook post.

The policy was adopted in part because of the uproar surrounding the anti-NRA tweet by KU journalism professor David Guth.

Guth was placed on administrative leave in September after a Twitter post following the shootings that left 13 dead at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Guth wrote: “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

The post angered many who thought Guth was wishing death on the children of National Rifle Association members. Guth has since apologized and has said he did not mean that he wanted children to die.

Guth’s leave has since ended, and he’s been put back to work on administrative duties.

Some legislators had said KU should have fired Guth.

Under the new policy, a university employee could be disciplined, up to being fired, for making a communication on social media that adversely affected the school.

Jerry Mikkelson, a KU professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies, said that was too broad. “Getting a correct outcome of this thing doesn’t involve chipping away at the edges of it. There are fundamental things wrong with it.”

KU officials could not be reached for comment regarding the regents’ announcement.

But previously both Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Provost Jeff Vitter had said revisions to the policy were needed to ensure academic freedom.