Social media and the importance of free speech

image of first amendment

The Kansas Board of Regents has posted proposed revisions to its misguided policy on social media

The revisions include some of the changes suggested by a working group the regents appointed. Unfortunately, the board has failed to change the most troublesome aspects of the policy. It makes me think of William Allen White’s Pulitzer-winning editorial about freedom of speech:

You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.

The regents policy reflects none of that sort of thinking. Here’s a response I left on the regents website:

I appreciate the additional language added to the policy on social media, but the revisions do nothing to diminish the threat to free speech at universities in Kansas.

Sections 3 and 4 are essentially unchanged, treating universities like businesses rather than institutions of learning, debate and exploration. They leave faculty members, staff members, and student employees at the whim of political winds, offering little or no protection when they push boundaries and take on unpopular topics.

From the beginning, the regents policy has come across as a knee-jerk political response aimed at appeasing critics rather than standing up for the importance of free and open debate. The revised policy does nothing to repair the damage that the university system has suffered as a result. It will make it harder to hire highly qualified faculty members, not to mention staff members, who are even more vulnerable to political punishment. It will force members of the university community into self-censorship and paint our institutions of higher learning as places hostile to free expression. It will further perpetuate the stereotypical images of Kansas as a place out of touch with modernity.

Simply by singling out social media, the regents display ignorance of history. New forms of technology and media have provoked similar responses from those in power ever since the printing press challenged the church’s hold on information in the 15th century. Everything from newspapers and magazines to dime novels, tabloids, comic books and television have been seen as threats to society, leading to efforts to restrict and censor much like those the regents have taken.

Rather than taking the long view and recognizing the importance of unfettered speech, the regents have chosen political expediency. Even the short turnaround time for comments on the policy shows that the board has little interest in changing its approach. Rather, the board seems to want to dress up the indefensible and hope that the matter goes away.

It won’t.

I strongly recommend that the regents accept the carefully crafted and reasonable policy put forth by the working group. Failing to do so will put the entire university system at risk.

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