Why It's Silly to Make Rules About What Your Employees Can Say Online

Email a Friend

In September, after the Navy Yard shooting, a journalism professor at Kansas University posted the following tweet:

The tweet, not totally surprisingly, sparked national outrage among conservatives.

Republican lawmakers in Kansas threatened to slash the university’s budget unless Guth was fired. He was put on paid leave, and afterwards seems to have been sent to some sort of non-teaching limbo. The story seemed mostly over.

Until yesterday, when news broke that Kansas University would institute a new policy dictating what professors can say on social media. The school can fire anyone who breaks the rules. The guidelines start with prohibitions against things like directly inciting violence and disclosing confidential student information, and then quickly broaden out to include speech that:

“— Impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

This is bad, but not for the reason you might think. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that I can say whatever I want and my boss can’t punish me for it. If Kansas University wants to set incredibly severe free speech restrictions for its employees (“impairs harmony among co-workers!”) that’s a fight for the professors and the school to have. But what KU shouldn’t do is make employees’ online speech its own separate category.

From the University’s perspective, Twitter or Facebook posts need their own rules because they have the potential to become massively and suddenly public, the way Guth’s tweet did.

But that’s true of anything that’s said publicly, or even anything said privately that becomes publicly broadcast.

What if Guth had stood in front of his class and expressed the same sentiment, and one of those students had tweeted a quote? Which set of University speech codes would Guth be subject to? What if he said the same words to a reporter, and then people tweeted it out from that reporter’s article?

Our words end up online, whether or not we put them there.

(via Nathan Jurgenson)