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SPOTLIGHT
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Published on -1/24/2014, 2:26 PM

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Free speech can be assigned a cost in certain situations. Depending on one's perspective, the price of expression on college campuses throughout Kansas either just went through the roof -- or is the same as it ever was.

We're talking about the Kansas Board of Regents' controversial social media policy pushed through after a University of Kansas professor tweeted his thoughts about a mass shooting. Believing the First Amendment would protect him, he invoked ire from those who believe the Second Amendment reigns supreme when he wrote: "Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters."

While KU did suspend David Guth temporarily, there were less-than-subtle hints from NRA-friendly Kansas legislators that university funding might be affected.

The Kansas Board of Regents took the defensive measure of imposing a policy deemed offensive by staff and faculty members throughout the state. Moving forward, "improper use of social media" could result in the loss of one's job.

The Kansas chapter of the American Association of University Professors said the "policy is a direct affront to faculty members' rights to academic freedom and freedom of speech as assured in Regents Policies. Furthermore, it undermines the fundamental principles of academic tenure and due process."

The last point refers to a university's chief executive officer having the right to determine if a Facebook post or tweet is not in the "best interest of the university" or if it "impairs harmony among co-workers" -- and then having the ability to fire even a tenured professor in the process.

The Regents were besieged with requests to suspend the policy. They did not, but have assembled a workgroup to study the new social media rules.

Representing Fort Hays State University on the panel is Web content manager Kristin Rupp and Melissa Hunsicker-Walburn, an attorney as well as assistant professor in the Department of Informatics.

Rupp told The Hays Daily News the group will "examine the policy in depth and clarify any of the ambiguities that may exist."

Hunsicker-Walburn said she's committed "to working with focus, maintaining an open mind and keeping an objective lens that balances law and higher education quality in Kansas."

Anything the group can do that can satisfy the concerns raised by university faculty and staff will be appreciated. But when it comes down to it, was the social media policy even needed?

FHSU President Edward Hammond said: "It wasn't necessary for the Board of Regents to pass it, but having it makes it helpful."

He explained the university already has procedures in place and case law to follow if an employee crosses the line with comments about the school. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the balancing act of public employees' free-speech rights and whether that speech is in the best interests of the university.

We don't believe there should be special rules just because social media sites exist. Public employees should be able to express themselves as private individuals the same whether they're at a Rotary Club meeting or on a blog. Likewise, universities should have recourse to protect their brand and reputation, regardless of platform.

The best solution will be for the Board of Regents to rescind the policy. It doesn't accomplish anything that doesn't already exist, and it has most of the academic community up in arms. We understand the political climate in Topeka is not favorable to many in the education field, but a different freedom of expression should have been used. Rather than have a workgroup attempt to detail the First Amendment rights of staff and faculty, the Regents should explain the First Amendment to legislators who appeared willing to trample it.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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