Friday, December 20, 2013

University employees: New social media policy is broad, vague and “chilling”

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD and BEN UNGLESBEE, The Lawrence Journal-World

After the Kansas Board of Regents approved a new policy Wednesday that allows state university CEOs to fire employees for social media posts that conflict with the interest of their schools, faculty members and university employees around the state have been scrambling to understand what the policy means for them, and to respond to it.

Many took to social media to express their views.

A new Facebook group called "Kansas Universities Faculty & Staff Against Regents' Speech Policy" had already garnered more than 280 likes by 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

On his Facebook page, Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University professor of political science, called the new policy "unbelievably broad and vague" and said he felt a "chill" in response to the "ill-considered and expansive provisions" in the policy. The post drew more than 30 comments, including some from Kansas Regent Ed McKechnie, who disputed the "broad and vague description."

Many other KU faculty members have already expressed dismay. Ron Barnett-Gonzalez, a KU associate professor of aerospace engineering and the state conference president of the American Association of University Professors, said the new policy was "fraught with potential for abuse."

Barnett-Gonzalez also said he worried that it could prevent professors from making critical statements against university and state officials and that it could hurt KU's ability to recruit talented faculty. By this morning he had already received what he estimated to be 80 to 90 emails from concerned colleagues at other institutions.

Students, too, were voicing concerns about the policy on social media. KU student body president Marcus Tetwiler said he had seen several posts on Facebook from students holding jobs with the university who worried that they could now be fired for their social media posts.

Tetwiler surmised he himself might be liable for his social media posts under the policy given his position within the university organization. "I hope that students, faculty and staff, and all our critical thinkers, are not afraid of this policy," he said. "I hope they speak up and keep doing their jobs."

Response to Guth's tweet

Passed yesterday partly as a response to KU professor David Guth's anti-NRA tweet in September that angered many across the country, the policy gives the chief executive officer of a state university the authority to suspend, dismiss or terminate any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media. Improper use of social media is defined by the Regents as language that:

— Directly incites violence or other immediate breach of the peace;

— Is made pursuant to the employee’s official duties and is contrary to the best interests of the university;

— Discloses confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information, or confidential research data; or

— Impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.

KU Faculty Senate President Christopher Steadham said in an email that he had "not heard from a single faculty member expressing support of the new social media policy." He added that many were concerned about what sorts of communication might be considered against the "best interests" of the university or its ability to "efficiently" provide services, as the policy states.

Officials said they expected passage of the policy would produce a lot of discussion.

"I expect that there will be expressions of concern in the community about it and that we will have some further discussions about it, and perhaps there will be further discussions here (at the regents) about it as well," said KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said.

Voicing support
Fort Hays State University President Ed Hammond said he supported the new policy because it is based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions around freedom of speech, and it leaves the call on whether to discipline an employee with the chief executive of the university.

"I feel comfortable with what the board did," said Hammond, who has been president at FHSU for 28 years. He said university leaders rely on their legal counsel if there is a question about whether an employee has engaged in protected speech or has crossed the line, and that will continue.

Regents Chairman Fred Logan said he will be willing to talk with groups about it. "This will obviously trigger some conversations on campuses. I think it is quite likely we are all going to learn something through this," he said.

After the Guth incident, several powerful legislators called on KU to fire the professor. But Logan said he felt no pressure from legislators to institute the new policy. "There were a lot of legislations who have spoken out, but my goal was to come up with a very narrowly drawn policy that would recognize First Amendment rights but also address the responsibility of the university employees to their employer," Logan said.

State Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Shawnee, who had said Guth should have been fired, said he supported the regents policy. "I support free speech 100 percent, but there can be consequences for your words," he said. "Universities need the flexibility to address the actions of staff that tarnish their institution's image," he said.