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Social media policy causes concern

8/17/2014

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

egolden@dailynews.net

As the new school year approaches, Fort Hays State University faculty and staff are hoping changes will be made in a policy they fear might hamper free speech. Speech, specifically through social media, could be restricted following the passing of a new policy by the Kansas Board of Regents.

The social media policy was created in response to a University of Kansas journalism professor's tweet regarding the September 2013 shooting at the U.S. Naval Yard, where 12 people were killed.

Due to a public outcry as a result of the tweet, the Board of Regents began drafting a social media policy in December.

"The policy was generated in a strange way," said Stephen Donnelly, assistant professor of chemistry and former faculty senate president. "Most policies are published before they're passed, so the stakeholders are given time to respond with what they think about the policy. With this, the faculty wasn't given a chance to respond. Of course, no one was happy about that."

The policy states: "The chief executive officer of a state university has the authority to make use of progressive discipline measures pursuant to the Board or university policy, up to and including suspension, dismissal or termination."

"This means the improper use of social media by a Regents employee could result in termination if the speech is not in the best interest of the university," said Melissa Hunsicker-Walburn, chair of the department of informatics and a licensed attorney. "Academics have traditionally been held to a standard that allows them to say the thing that is controversial without retribution. It was difficult for the faculty to know what was meant by the policy saying 'if it was not in the best interest of the university.' "

The policy was effective immediately.

In April, each university nominated two people to a task force to review the Board's policy. Hunsicker-Walburn represented FHSU.

"The revisal in April was like putting lipstick on a pig," Donnelly said. "(The Board) kept intact what they had. What they did was throw away the original proposal and came at it from the responsibility side. We have academic freedom, but we also have a strong responsibility to keep an eye on what we say and be aware of that because of our position in the community."

Hunsicker-Walburn said it was easier for the task force to start from scratch instead of revising the existing policy.

"We came up with a draft that expressed a commitment to academic freedom and the preservation of free speech," Hunsicker-Walburn said. "It didn't provide for any termination. The Board of Regents didn't adopt the recommendation. They said they liked the commitment to academic freedom, but also wanted to preserve the ability to have sanctions."

This policy was effective in May.

"They took some of the nice flowery wording from some of the changes," Donnelly said, "put it in there to hopefully hide their part, but they basically left what they had intact. Nothing changed. It just made it a little more flowery."

Donnelly said the faculty was upset about the decision to adopt the slightly-revised policy.

"It was quite an uproar," he said. "It was perceived to be draconian in the way it dealt with academic freedom and the ability for faculty to speak their minds without fear of retribution."

This potentially could lead to faculty members failing to provide meaningful engagement in social media because they are unsure how this policy will impact them, Hunsicker-Walburn said.

"I can empathize and understand the momentum and actions that led to this policy," she said. "But, if lack of engagement is a consequence, we should all be concerned."

Donnelly believes this could lead to a decline in Kansas higher education.

"If you had outspoken views, would you consider a job here," Donnelly said, "if you felt the policy limited your ability to say what you think needs to be said. Certainly some people think this will limit the quality of folks we're going to get here in Kansas."

President Mirta Martin ensures diversity of thought will not be affected.

"I want to assure the members of our FHSU community that upholding the principles of academic freedom and shared governance, and upholding the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment will be the paramount consideration with respect to any application of the Kansas Board of Regents' policy on the use of social media by faculty and staff," Martin said.

The Board of Regents does not directly enforce the policy, but Donnelly believes the Board could put pressure on a university president to enforce the policy.

"If there was another KU-like incident and the university president did not fire that person, I don't know how the Board would react," Donnelly said. "My interpretation for why they did this is they were worried about getting funding cut by the folks under the capital dome. A few of them wanted to cut KU funding because of the incident. The Board was thinking they needed to find a way to placate the folks over there. If something popped up, I guess it would depend on how much noise came from our legislature. And if the president did fire someone as a result of the policy, there most definitely would be a lawsuit."

Breeze Richardson, director of communications for the Kansas Board of Regents, said the policy does not grant any authority to university administrators they did not already have.

"Rather it outlines what speech the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public employers generally have authority to discipline their employees for, including but not limited to, speech," Richardson said. "The policy does not mandate anything. It aims to provide guidance regarding the use of social media by faculty and staff."

The board declined to provide any additional comments.

"I got the feeling that the Regents didn't imagine the policy being used widely to discipline faculty or staff," Hunsicker-Walburn said.

"I can foresee the policy might be challenged, but it would take some kind of sanction as a result of the policy. Academics have the right to free speech. It would take a significant event before the CEO of a university would rely on this policy as a basis for sanctioning someone."

Linn Ann Huntington, associate professor of communication studies, said this is not the first time free speech has been of concern.

"There is a long history of the administration trying to restrict speech by faculty, and now they have permission from the Regents to do it," she said.

In 2002, Huntington wrote a column for the Hays Daily News about distributing the university logo to local venders -- including alcohol vendors.

"I was summoned to my department chair's office and was told it had upset people in the administration," she said. "This is of concern to me as a journalism professor. We're supposed to bring important issues for the public to debate. The column did generate public debate, but I was told it crossed the line of political speech. I did not perceive alcohol consumption to fall under political speech."

A few years later, Huntington recommended a student for a scholarship.

The student later was accused of plagiarism, and Huntington wanted to write a letter to the scholarship coordinator regarding the incident.

"I was told I couldn't put something in a personal letter to a friend," she said. "It was a matter of public record, but I couldn't write it unless it was reviewed first by the attorney of the university."

The student threatened to sue the university and Huntington.

"My integrity was at stake," Huntington said. "The university attorney told me his job is to keep his boss from being sued, therefore he was going to need to look at the letter because the student was claiming it was all private."

Huntington believes this policy will lead to more restrictions on free speech and a greater number of instances similar to the ones she has experienced.

"I think it's a violation of academic freedom and a violation of the First Amendment," she said. "Until or unless someone challenges it and goes to court, it will stand."