GCCC officials weigh in on Regents' policy

1/11/2014

By ANGIE HAFLICH

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

A social media policy recently passed by the Kansas Board of Regents has created backlash from both college professors and presidents statewide. Garden City Community College officials are also weighing in on the topic, even though it doesn't apply directly to the local college.

The policy, put into place by Board of Regents on Dec. 18, states campus officials at any of the six Regents institutions can take disciplinary action against employees whose statements made on social media are deemed to be "improper." While that doesn't apply to GCCC yet, at some point, it could.

The Kansas Board of Regents is the nine-member governing board of the state's six public universities — Emporia State University, Pittsburg State University, Fort Hays State University, Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas.

The policy prohibits any communications through social media that directly incites violence or other immediate breach of peace when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee's official duties; is contrary to the best interest of the university; or that impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers. Disciplinary action may include termination.

The policy touched off a firestorm of opposition from professors and presidents across the state, including Max McCoy, associate professor of English, modern languages and journalism at Emporia State.

"To me, the policy is so broad. I mean it covers things that are already covered and then goes too far, in terms of muzzling faculty and staff expression. I don't really see the need for the policy. I think there are already laws in place, and plus the policy was a reaction to — I should say the policy was an overreaction to — an instance where a professor tweeted a rather stupid and frankly insensitive message about his personal feelings," McCoy said.

The tweet, made by David Guth, a KU journalism professor, was done in response to the naval yard shootings in which 13 people were killed. The tweet said, in part, 'The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be your sons and daughters."

Laura Guy, student media coordinator and media instructor at GCCC, president of the Garden City Higher Education Association and president of Kansas Collegiate Media, said that she sees the Board of Regents' policy as a knee-jerk reaction and that she questions whether the board did due diligence in considering what the ramifications of passing such a policy would be.

"I felt that the Board of Regents issuing this policy so quickly was more of a measure of censure, where they were just coming up saying, 'We do not condone what this professor did.' But what they don't understand or perhaps what they didn't consider, by doing so, you're condemning the rest of us," Guy said. "I always go back to, having served on faculty senate and having served on our faculty negotiations and just as an instructor, that policies cannot police personalities. You can write all kinds of policies, but you still have varying personalities to deal with. There is no one-size-fits-all policy, I don't think."

Guy also said she takes issue with the fact that the policy is open to interpretation.

"Do I think that we have a responsibility to consider what we put out there? Sure we do. But I think if you take a look at colleges and universities across Kansas, most if not all have code of conduct policies, which already govern that," she said. "Free speech and protection of free speech means all speech, not just speech you agree with, and it's for discussing things that you may or may not agree with so that you can arrive at your own ideas."

On Dec. 31, after hearing concerns from the six universities, the Board of Regents issued a press release stating, in part: Board Chair Fred Logan has asked Andy Tompkins, President and CEO of the Board, to work with the university presidents and chancellors to form a workgroup of representatives from each state university campus to review the policy.

In an interview with The Telegram, Logan said the workgroup has not been formed yet, but that he anticipates it will be formed in the next couple of weeks.

"What we've done is, we are in the process of forming a workgroup to make recommendations with respect to any proposed revisions to the policy and asked them to come to the (KBOR's) governance committee in April with any revisions," Logan said.

Logan said the policy will remain in effect until that time. According to the Associated Press, more than 80 professors signed a letter to the KBOR asking that it suspend the new social media policy until the review is complete, saying that the policy prevents faculty and staff at the state's universities from exercising their freedom of speech.

Both Guy and McCoy agree.

Guy said that the Board of Regents' decision to keep the policy in place while it is being reviewed is dangerous.

"If an action should come of this, the Board of Regents will have an issue to deal with in the courts. The constitutionality of their policy will, in fact, be tested," she said.

McCoy said the policy should be rescinded until after review.

"I'm concerned that the policy abridges faculty and staff free speech rights, and merely appointing a work group to study the problem, while the policy remains in effect, is not enough. The policy should be rescinded," he said, adding that he is confused by some of Logan's statements to the press, saying that the policy is a starting point. "To me, (the policy) is an end point. So I appeal to the Regents to scrap the policy, start over with the work group, take recommendations and then examine what they would like to do."

He also said that the vagueness of the policy invites abuse.

"I don't know any university president or chancellor in the state who would abuse the policy, but that's not to say there never would be," McCoy said. "I think everyone agrees that civil discourse is important, that we need to maintain professional demeanor, professional communication. However, the real test is, when there's an unpopular opinion, and if it's a protected opinion, if it's not clearly an area of speech that is unprotected by the constitution — for example, if it's not pornographic, if it's not inciting violence or its not hate speech, etc., etc. — then you have to ask yourself, 'Is this speech being targeted merely because it is unpopular or impolitic?'"

College presidents also have expressed concerns over the broad nature of the policy and the subsequent difficulty they would face in enforcing it.

Dr. Herbert Swender, president of GCCC, said that because GCCC is governed by its board of trustees, the Board of Regents policy doesn't apply, but that he understands the concern from the presidents of the colleges.

"Someone posting whatever they want — I don't think we can control that one, or if we want to try," Swender said. "I think that would be very difficult to enforce, but I think it's time to have intellectual debate and conversation about what is socially acceptable, and I don't think that's a bad thing."

GCCC doesn't have a social media policy, but its code of conduct states, in part: "As public servants, employees should strive to serve with respect, concern and responsiveness. They should demonstrate the highest standards of personal integrity, truthfulness and honesty in all public and private activities. Because they serve the public, it is especially important for them to conduct themselves in a manner that assures and promotes the public's trust in Garden City Community College."

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