Kansas regents adopt revised social media policy

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The board overseeing higher education in Kansas revised a policy allowing state universities to discipline or fire employees for improper social media use by adding statements Wednesday that academic freedom and free speech rights will be protected.

Action by the Board of Regents came after months of criticism from faculty and education groups over the policy it adopted in December in response to a University of Kansas journalism professor’s tweet against the National Rifle Association. The policy - the first of its kind for all six Kansas universities - permits top administrators to discipline, suspend or fire staff who use social media improperly.

Regents Chairman Fred Logan, a Leawood attorney, said the policy is narrow and won’t prevent university faculty members from criticizing administrators or discussing issues.

“There is a very, very limited chance, in my opinion, that it’s going to have much application,” Logan said after the board’s unanimous voice vote.

But opponents of the initial policy aren’t satisfied. Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, president of the Kansas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said a legal challenge is possible and his group has had discussions with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several dozen faculty members crowded the board room, wearing T-shirts decrying the policy and red “free speech stickers.”

“It’s a dreadful day in so many ways,” said Barrett-Gonzalez, who is also a University of Kansas associate professor of aerospace engineering.

Under the policy, improper use of social media includes messages that incite violence or a “breach of the peace.” The policy also covers disclosure of private student or health care information and content “contrary to the best interests” of the university.

The regents added language Wednesday reiterating their commitment to academic freedom and saying the policy will be enforced “consistent with the First Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.

The revised policy says, “The United States Supreme Court has held that public employers generally have authority to discipline their employees for speech in a number of circumstances.”

Logan said the policy doesn’t impose new limits on speech but reminds university employees of the existing authority administrators have. He said the board enacted a specific policy on social media simply to give administrators guidance.

Barrett-Gonzalez said the policy is already having a “chilling effect” on campuses, prompting faculty to remove posts on social media and use paper to communicate with students for assignments and other matters instead.

The regents imposed the policy in the wake of outrage from Republican legislators, other state officials and gun rights advocates over a tweet sent in September by David Guth, an associate journalism professor at the University of Kansas. Guth’s tweet was a response to a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

It said, “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.”

Guth later apologized and was placed on administrative leave before being assigned to other, non-classroom duties for the fall semester. He took a planned sabbatical for this spring’s semester.

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