Juana Summers, NPR Ed
Juana Summers is an education reporter at NPR
The clash between academic freedom and state oversight in Kansas last week continues, as the state Board of Regents revised its policy on what faculty and staff at the state's colleges and universities can post on social media.
Following harsh criticism of a policy adopted last year that severely restricted social media postings by faculty, the Board added language that is supportive of free speech and academic freedom. But it still allows administrators to suspend and fire faculty members or staffers for social media posts that are "contrary to the best interests of the employer."
Critics say the policy remains among the most restrictive in the nation and that despite the changes it is a severe restriction on free speech for educators.
"The exercise of free speech is now potentially a firing offense at colleges and universities in Kansas," the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication writes in a statement.
The Board of Regents first adopted its social media policy last year, in response to a tweet made by an associate journalism professor at the University of Kansas.
The tweet by David Guth criticized the National Rifle Association in relation to the September 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Guth tweeted: "blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters."
The policy adopted in December was denounced from many sides, with many critics saying it gave administrators too much latitude to fire or discipline employees for what they said on social media.
Among the groups speaking out was The American Association of University Professors which argued that some portions of the policy could lead to professors being fired simply for disagreeing with university policies or their colleagues online.
"Nothing could tarnish the image of universities in Kansas more than adoption of ill-considered policies like this one," the group wrote on its website.
And in response to those criticisms, the board last week added the new language.
"The Kansas Board of Regents strongly supports principles of academic freedom. It highly values the work of state university faculty members. Academic freedom protects their work and enhances the valuable service they provide to the people of Kansas," the Board writes in the revised policy.
The policy also says that "any communication via social media that is protected by the First Amendment and that is otherwise permissible under the law is not precluded by this policy."
Under the policy, examples of improper use of social media include speech that could incite or produce violence, discloses confidential information or "is contrary to the best interests of the employer." According to the policy, the chief executive officer of a university could discipline an employee — including suspension, dismissal and termination — in response to social media posts. The policy extends to blog and social media sites.
While the policy — even in its revised form — has been criticized for stifling academic freedom, the Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Fred Logan says it actually works to make those freedoms stronger by creating more specific guidelines.
"In many respects, the work that has been done has really focused on lifting up academic freedom as a core principle for the Kansas Board of Regents," Logan says.
"Now, that may sound funny, but if you look in our policy manual, there's really not much in there about that."
Another member of the board, Helen Van Etten, called the revised policy "a happy medium."
"I think we will see more and more other universities start to have these same policies," she said. "We don't want to damage their brand and we don't also want their universities to impair their academic freedom."