The word “improper” always scares me as part of a policy and the new proposal issued by the University of Kansas Board of Regents is no exception to that rule. A few weeks back, the board decided to pass a policy that noted faculty members (including tenured ones) and other employees could be fired for “improper use of social media.” These “improper” tweets and posts can range from inciting violence to putting forth information that “is contrary to the best interest of the university.”
The impetus for this policy was a tweet sent by a tenured journalism professor in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings. David Guth wrote, “#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.” Politicians were calling for Guth’s ouster and others went as far as to suggest that the state legislature smack KU around financially for Guth’s outburst.
In recent days, the regents have noted that they will not kill the policy, but that they are willing to give it another looksee because people had expressed concerns. In other words, “We’re still right and this is still the law of the land, but we’ll listen to you just to prove a point.”
In peeling back the layers of the onion here, several things are at play. First and foremost, Guth’s tweet was stupid and a lot of people have a lot of reasons to be upset about it. Guth’s own views on it kind of boggle the mind a bit, arguing that he “carefully structured the statement to make it conditional” regarding the idea of how the kids of NRA members should be slaughtered in a hail of bullets. Maybe he was right that it was “too much of a nuance for some people,” but I don’t think anyone is going to respond well to “May God damn you,” regardless of the level of nuance.
That said, almost every time I’ve been involved in “making policy” in the wake of something that freaked everyone out, nothing good ever really came of that policy. Usually, the policy fell into the category of a) common sense for everyone except people who were too stupid to understand how policies worked in the first place (e.g. “It is now against company policy to take a crap on the speaker phone during a conference call meeting with our Tokyo office. All defecation is to be done in company restrooms or other more suitable environments.”), b) a violent overreaction to whatever happened that is at least 10 times more draconian than it needs to be and at least 100 times worse than the actual crime (e.g. “Because our publisher’s wife fears reptiles, we are now forbidding all designers from ever running a photo of a snake on the front page. Punishment for this will be to suffer public flogging and then having a body part eaten off by a snake.” ) or c) something with more holes in it than a wheel of Swiss cheese. (“You are now forbidden from doing… um… stuff… Unless you think it’s OK. Carry on.”)
In short, these policies suck.
Even more, the idea behind a university is that free exchange of ideas should be allowed so that people can come to some sort of agreement on what is important and what isn’t. I’m not saying Guth didn’t deserve some form of rebuke, but what I am saying is that 140 characters of “yeesh” shouldn’t create a chilling effect for an entire state’s higher education system. I’m sure the student newspaper, The Daily Kansan, has occasionally written things that are “contrary to the best interests of the university.” If they tweet something promoting an article that notes administrative malfeasance, issues pertaining to racism or other such things, what happens when a professor retweets that? Or what happens when a class discussion begins live and continues on Facebook regarding something along those lines?
Also, who gets to decide what’s “inappropriate?” I might argue that any discussion of politics is inappropriate, but hey… let’s talk about porn! I’m not sure that’s how the folks in Kansas would see it, but I find politics far more disgusting than “Gentlemen Prefer Buffy.” Larger point: it’s arbitrary as hell, regardless of how many specificities they pump into this policy.
The deal with the First Amendment has always been that the government can’t stop you from saying whatever you want before you say it. After you open your mouth, the fallout is what ever it is.
No matter how uncomfortable social media and faculty ideas make them, the regents in Kansas can’t reverse those two pieces.