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Kansas University Board Revises Its Free Speech Guidelines

Following months of criticism, the Kansas Board of Regents revised its social media policy on Wednesday, but that didn't satisfy detractors who said it still represented a blow against academic free speech.

Fred Logan, the board's chair, said the new policy will "shore up academic freedom by creating more specific guidelines," reports Peggy Lowe of member station KCUR.

"In many respects, the work that has been done has really focused on lifting up academic freedom as a core principal for the Kansas Board of Regents," Logan said.

The board made it clear it will not tolerate social media posts that incite violence or disclose confidential student or health care information. More broadly, it decided that messages that could do harm to the university are "contrary to the best interests of the employer."

The whole debate was triggered by an incident last fall. Following the killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September, David Guth, a University of Kansas journalism professor, sent out a tweet saying, "#NavyYardShooting 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 eventually apologized but was put on administrative leave and is currently on sabbatical.

Last December, the board adopted a policy that established disciplinary action for improper use of social media. It was widely panned by professors and free-speech advocates who said it was unnecessarily punitive and would limit exchanges of ideas.

They aren't much more pleased by the revised language. "Adding a lot of language to the social media policy about how the Board of Regents values First Amendment rights and 'strongly supports academic freedom' ... won't warm up the chilling effect of the wording about giving university administrators the authority to use 'progressive discipline measures' including suspension, dismissal and termination," the Wichita Eagle editorialized.

It's not the specific language but the rules allowing for professors to be fired over social media posts that are the problem, argues Stephen Wolgast, a professor of journalism and digital media at Kansas State University.

"What concerns me is the policy that a professor or staff member could be fired if a social media post is construed as keeping a university from operating efficiently," he wrote in an editorial for the Kansas City Star. "Who will judge the loyalty of my Facebook post?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.

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