Professional Standards for Professors on Social Media

By Joey Gelman

Social Media and the First Amendment have been a combination that has brought much debate on how to properly govern works on social media. People can be fired in the private sector for a certain post on Facebook or Twitter, but that same rule may not apply to those under the umbrella of Academia.

Debate surrounding social media and the First Amendment in relation to academic freedom has been at the forefront of the national landscape. As recent as December 1st, 2014, the U.S Supreme Court is still trying to determine what rights an individual has on social media. The umbrella of academic freedom has been used to protect university professors across the country that have had controversial interactions with social media, but should there be a professional standard for professors on social media? Or does that violate the First Amendment?

This relationship between social media, the First Amendment and academic freedom took center stage in 2013. David Guth , a journalism professor at Kansas University, was suspended with pay from the university after he sent out controversial tweets surrounding the Navy Yard Shooting in September of 2013 in Washington DC.

Guth wrote,” Blood is on the hands of the NRA. Next time, let it be your sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

David Guth Tweet - pop hat.com
David Guth Tweet – pophat.com

Guth declined to comment for this article, but his case appeared to bring to light the issues surrounding the three elements mentioned above, and continues to do so as more cases continue to be seen throughout the country.

Guth has been reinstated at Kansas University for the 2014 Academic Year.

Steven Salaita’s Case For Academic Freedom At The University of Illinois

Steven Salaita Press Confernce September 9th
Steven Salaita Press Confernce September 9th, 2014

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded the job offer of American Indian Studies Professor Steven Salaita on August 1st, 2014, after he has sent out a string of controversial tweets surrounding the Israel-Gaza conflict over that past summer.

In a letter to Salaita, U of I Chancellor Phyllis Wise wrote, “ We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely…We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty…”

While people may agree or disagree with the content of his tweets, the question still remains surrounding the idea of if the university has the right to revoke his job offer for the content of his tweets. It also asks if this censorship by universities should be allowed moving forward when dealing with a professor’s use of social media.

Students throughout the university campus have spoken out against the university, claiming that they violated the very reason universities exist, academic freedom and the free expression of ideas.

Steven Salaita Press Conference September 9th, 2014 Crowd Shot
Steven Salaita Press Conference September 9th, 2014 Crowd Shot

A  U of I student shared that, “ When you are working in an institution that is bounded on academic freedom, that is our entire basis, you can’t have censorship.”

Salaita argued that the messages he sent were through his personal twitter account, and should in no way reflect his classroom environment.

CEO of the First Amendment Center in Washington DC, Ken Paulson, argued that while there will always be people who post distasteful things and have to suffer the consequences, the nation is better if everyone is able to express themselves. “ The best remedy for offensive speech is other speech that calls is out,”’ Paulson said.

While many argue that a professional standard on a professor’s use of social media violates the First Amendment, University of Illinois Journalism professor Ben Holden said that the Supreme Court has not officially made its stance in the world of Academia in regards to social media policy.

Steven Salaita Press Conference September 9th, 2014  Crowd Shot
Steven Salaita Press Conference September 9th, 2014 Crowd Shot

The combination of social media, the First Amendment and academic freedom continues to spark debate on the U of I campus, and for an in-depth look at the Salaita case and its relation to the First Amendment and academic freedom,  watch this video.

After uncertainty since August, the University Board of Trustees voted 8-1 not to hire Salaita back on September 11th, which included former Illinois president Robert Easter. However, Timothy Killen was named the new U of I president on November 19th, replacing Easter. A comment on the Salaita issue has yet to be addressed by the new president.

Salaita has begun a speaking tour since his un-hiring to bring awareness to his case for academic freedom. Along with the tours, many guest lecturers and speakers have canceled their events with the U of I, in solidarity with Salaita.

The University of Illinois has taken center stage on issue of academic freedom and social media in 2014; however, the state of Kansas has been involved in this debate since 2013. The Legal Director of the Kansas ACLU, Doug Bonney, claims to be a “First Amendment Absolutist,” and argues that there should not be any restrictions on what a professor says.

This viewpoint and the Guth example above come on the heels of the Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy for professors at Kansas Universities.

Kansas Board of Regents Adopts Social Media Policy For Professors At Kansas Universities.

Uncensor Kansas- Philnel.com
Uncensor Kansas- Philnel.com

December of 2013 in Kansas marked another step against protecting First Amendment rights on social media. The Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that allows public universities in Kansas to fire or suspend a professor if their content on social media could potentially harm the reputation of the school. A full transcription of the policy can be found on the Kansas Board of Regents’ website.

Ken Paulson, who was previously mentioned above, argued that the policy was constitutionally suspect. And if there were guidelines for a professor, he said that it would be difficult to implement under the First Amendment and under the vagueness behind a potential restriction.

Paulson said, “A university is a government body and as a government body, it is prohibited under 1st amendment from limiting free speech. You can’t just write that into a contract like you would write in dress standards.”

Students in this case also argued against such a policy, saying that this policy violates everything a university is trying to foster.

Kansas Board of Regents - pbs.com
Kansas Board of Regents – pbs.com

Paulson explained that it is extremely important for professors to engage in their university community and when a policy short-circuits that, “ it undermines a professor’s right to participate in a free society.

For a closer look at the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy and Ken Paulson’s views, watch this video to learn more.

Other states have been slow to adopt policies like Kansas, as the issues surrounding social media, the First Amendment and academic freedom continue to cause national debate.