Kansas Again

I need to reread “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”

University regents in that state have passed a policy giving university presidents authority to discipline employees, up to termination, for “improper use of social media.”

The action–characterized by an AAUP blogger as “a freakout”–came in the wake of an ill-considered tweet by a tenured Journalism professor. David Guth posted the tweet after September shootings killed 13 people in Washington, D.C. 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.”

In a later tweet, he apologized by saying “Some interpreted my tweet differently than it was intended,” Guth wrote. “I don’t want anyone’s children hurt. The fact my words were misconstrued is my fault.” Guth said that he was a professional communicator but hadn’t done a good job of explaining his position.

Conservative legislators threatened to vote against university funding if Guth remained on the faculty. Rather than defending the principle of academic freedom, the President responded by relieving Guth of his classroom duties, and the regents responded by issuing the new social media policy.

 “Social media” was defined as including but not being limited to blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. “Improper use” was defined as “indirectly inciting violence or immediate breach of peace; being contrary to the best interests of the university; disclosing without authority any confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information or confidential research data; or impairing discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, having a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impeding the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interfering with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affecting the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

“Contrary to the best interests of the University”? “Impairing harmony?” In whose opinion? Can we spell “vague and overbroad”?

A group of University Distinguished Professors from Kansas State has called for the immediate repeal of the amendment, pointing out that social media have become valued venues for the dissemination of research, and reminding the regents that  “The free and open exchange of ideas is essential to fulfilling the mission of any university.”

Let’s de-construct this sorry episode, shall we?

The whole purpose of a university is to encourage the search for truth. That search requires the broadest possible exploration and exchange of competing ideas–a mission that cannot be achieved if professors can be sanctioned for the expression of unpopular or offensive ideas. The purpose of tenure is not–as too many in and out of the academy seem to think– to provide faculty with job security; it was intended to prevent precisely the sort of retribution for unpopular expression that the Kansas legislature demanded and the University obediently imposed.

Intemperate and ill-conceived expression is the price we pay for protecting freedom of speech and scholarly inquiry from government interference.

We’ve become used to legislative bodies demonstrating a lack of acquaintance with basic American principles, but we might have expected better of the regents.

Of course, it is Kansas…

2 thoughts on “Kansas Again

  1. Your article mentions academic freedom, but there is a bigger problem. It’s probably protected speech under the First Amendment. They can’t fire him (and chill his speech) because he decided to express his political views.

  2. A wise friend told me years ago, “We are not always responsible for the results of what we say.” Remember that long-ago childhood game “telephone” where a message is whispered from one to another and the end result rarely bore similarity to the original message. We need to weigh our words and their meaning carefully before posting them or saying them. An ugly word spoken cannot be taken back. The protection of free speech under the 1st Amendment is abused by many; especially by our elected officials in Congress. Let’s show that we are bigger people, more intelligent and adult by carefully monitoring our own words – in public and in private.

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