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Don’t regulate professors’ tweets

University social media policies don’t just quell free speech, they impede scholars’ ability to grow

May 29, 2014 1:15AM ET

After last September’s shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., during which lone gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and injured three others, Kansas University journalism professor David Guth delivered a terse and somewhat careless commentary on Twitter: “#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.” Faced with criticism from state politicians and gun lobbyists, the university placed Guth on administrative leave. In December, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a comprehensive social media policy that appeared to give state university presidents unlimited discretion over faculty members’ use of Twitter and Facebook. Following an outcry from state university faculty and First Amendment advocacy groups, a revised version was released earlier this month, but it still allows faculty to be punished for social media activity that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the employer, or otherwise adversely affects the employer’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

The policy — intended to codify the standards of social media conduct that apply to faculty members and the process by which violators are to be punished — has largely been criticized as an imposition on free speech. Delivering the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents’ statement to the Kansas Board of Regents, Sheryl Lidzy, an associate professor at Emporia State University, emphasized, “The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment.”

But it’s more complicated — and the repercussions more harmful — than that. With universities increasingly hiring adjuncts who lack the job security that tenured faculty members enjoy, a bigger chunk of today’s faculty is left unprotected and could be fired perfunctorily. And because scholars are increasingly presenting and discussing their research through online channels, such a policy, given a sufficiently broad interpretation, could have a chilling effect on liberal arts and social science scholarship.

The first of these two concerns — the replacing of tenured faculty with adjunct faculty, who work on short-term contracts — does not apply in this instance. Guth, an associate professor with 23 years of service, has tenure, making him part of a group of tenured and tenure-track faculty that has shrunk from 57 percent of nationwide faculty appointments in 1975 to 30 percent in 2011 (PDF). His status is likely the reason that, rather than resign his post, he began a yearlong sabbatical after returning from academic leave.

But were Guth an adjunct, he could have been terminated swiftly, perhaps even mid-semester. An adjunct who maintains a blog that appears to be “interfering with official duties” could be removed with minimal administrative process. And the revised policy, despite paying lip service to academic freedom, gives administrators a lot of leeway in firing even tenure-track faculty.

For faculty at the “publish or perish” stage of their careers, harsh social media regulations could also serve as a significant impediment to professional advancement. Big shifts in the dissemination of scholarship, including the closure of some university presses, have prompted junior scholars to seek out new avenues for presenting their research. The U.S. Intellectual History Blog, to which I contribute occasional posts, allows academics to share their work in a quasi-public setting. Sport in American History, Legal History Blog and ContractsProfBlog are among many such sites posting material that often skirts the line between pure, disinterested research and the opinion of its author, with academics staking out positions that, at least to others in their field, might be deemed controversial. These blogs are in turn frequently discussed on Twitter, where academics who “follow” one another can offer critiques. Guth, whose research interests include law, the media and crisis communication, might not have been engaged in the production of scholarship when he tweeted about the Navy Yard tragedy, but a personal blog entry he published around the same time indicated that his impassioned feelings about the subject arose from a deep engagement with Second Amendment issues.

Scholars embracing online opportunities may find their research on controversial topics impedes their employers’ ‘ability to efficiently provide services’ to undergraduates.

For junior scholars attempting to navigate an increasingly daunting job market, a social media presence can prove a valuable asset. Claire Potter, a professor at the New School for Public Engagement who in 2007 began blogging about academia and her own research at Tenured Radical, has shown that a visible, high-quality blog can reach a far greater audience than a peer-reviewed monograph (and, as with her latest book on scholarship and collaboration in the digital age, even serve as the launching pad for scholarly work). Jessie Daniels, a professor at the City University of New York, has written extensively about turning her tweets and blog entries into peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. 

But, perhaps driven to insularity by the curiously noncollaborative nature of academic production in many liberal arts fields, or simply frightened by situations such as Guth’s, many graduate students have avoided opportunities for online networking and publication. They should. With smaller university presses facing uncertain financial outlooks and open-access, peer-reviewed online publishing increasing in popularity, a shift toward digital-only publication may prove inescapable. But those of us embracing online opportunities may find that our research on controversial topics — say, opening up single-partner marriage to polyamorous unions or legalizing the use of performance-enhancing drugs — causes us to run afoul of our employers’ “ability to efficiently provide services” to tuition-paying undergraduates.

Has the Guth contretemps affected the way I navigate social media and the blogosphere? I’d be lying if I said no. When colleagues began tweeting an essay in which the Atlantic writer Ta-Nahesi Coates made a compelling case for reparations, I paused to consider whether a casual observer might think that my retweeting of this piece constituted an endorsement of its thesis (this despite the fact that my Twitter account explicitly states that “retweets do not constitute endorsements”). To this hypothetical outside observer, such an avowedly “political” stance might appear to render me incapable of teaching the history of slavery or the Civil War in an unbiased manner — never mind, of course, that such positions often arise from a careful engagement with these subjects. My own recent Salon article, which recounted my unsavory experience as an Abercrombie & Fitch manager who was forced to implement discriminatory corporate policies, could also conceivably rub a student, a student’s parents or a state legislator the wrong way.   

After all, it took only one careless, impassioned 140-character tweet to earn David Guth a suspension and to prompt the implementation of a comprehensive social media policy for the thousands of faculty employed at Kansas’ six state universities. Not all cases of social media abuse will be as clear-cut as Guth’s was, and even in its modified form, that policy offers administrators a convenient means of subverting a system of tenure-based faculty protection already imperiled by the swelling ranks of unprotected adjunct faculty. Free speech, while a critical concern, is not all that is at stake in such a conflict. Kansas’ public research universities, if they hope to be more than mere providers of “efficient services” to their heavily indebted students, must take steps to safeguard the academic work in which their faculty is engaged.  

Oliver Bateman is a lawyer and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at the Good Men Project, where he is a contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter: @MoustacheClubUS.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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