Thursday, December 19, 2013

Academic Freedom and Social Media

So this decision by the Kansas Board of Regents has been making the academical news today: Basically, it's a policy outlining under what circumstances a faculty member could be penalized, even fired, for remarks made via social media. It is also very vaguely and broadly worded in parts, giving the Board of Regents and university administrators wide discretionary powers when it comes to enforcing the policy. I urge you to read the linked article for a much more detailed breakdown of the policy and the associated debate.

I have to admit, that I am of two minds about this, and it's very interesting that this hits at the same time as the A&E/Phil Robertson news.

Academic freedom is a vital component to higher education, and allows instructors to introduce new ideas and information, challenge existing theories, and develop critical thinking in students. From my own experience I know that part of being a good historian is reading works by scholars whose views you may radically disagree with, not merely to understand the whole of a particular historical debate, but to refine and hone your own thinking on a given subject. It is also important for students to be exposed to differing interpretations, or even to idea which are almost universally considered abhorrent (for example, a class on Nazi Germany might include Mein Kampf  or excerpts from the diaries of Joseph Goebbels in the students' reading assignments. Not because the instructor agrees with Hitler and Goebbels' ideology, but because these are important primary sources for understanding the history of the time and men who made it. Without academic freedom, however, there is a possibility of the instructor being accused of Nazism and of spreading fascist ideology, and being fired because of baseless allegations.) All of that being said, academic freedom has its limits, just as the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Just as inciting people to violence is not protected speech, neither does academic freedom allow instructors to endanger the physical safety of their students or others. Both are examples of common-sensical limits to freedom of action in the public square.

No one is suggesting that academic freedom as currently understood be further limited in the classroom (at least, not in this particular case. That's what the larger push to eliminate tenure in universities is all about). The question is to what extent instructors can be held responsible vocationally for their comments, postings, etc on personal social media accounts. I think most would agree that an employer has every right to set policies on how electronic media provided by and directly connected with that employer are, and are not used. You don't write your state legislatures using your state-provided university e-mail. That's why God gave us personal gmail accounts. You also don't use the University of Wherever's Twitter account to raise hell about the president. Again, you save those gems for your personal account. What the Kansas Board of Regents are doing, however, is to set policy for people's personal, public social media accounts, and honestly, I think maybe they can, and might even ought to.

In response to the push-back against A&E's dismissal of Phil Robertson from future episodes of Duck Dynasty, which is largely (and erroneously) being portrayed as a freedom of speech issue (it's protection from the government, not from private sector employers like cable networks), is that Mr. Robertson freely spoke his mind publicly, many people publicly decried his comments, and the network responded to pressure from its viewers and advertisers (i.e. where their money comes from) and decided to put Mr. Robertson on an indefinite hiatus. Okay, I can agree with all of that. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences. Yet, if this is true for Phil Robertson, should it not also hold true for academics?

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are inherently public spaces, no matter how savvy you are with your privacy settings, or how discriminating you may be in accepting friend requests or allowing followers. I know way too many people with lots of workplace friends who unhesitatingly rant about work some days, and do so very specifically, rather than just "Whew. Rough day today!" These people should not be surprised if their remarks have some ramifications for them at work the next day. They might have pissed off one of their friends who was involved in the same situation, or their boss, or co-worker, or whoever. Self-editing is a vital social skill, folks, and there's a reason they're called social networks. So if an instructor goes off on some hateful rant on social media and (surprise, surprise) that rant goes a bit viral (don't forget all of those friends of friends of friends who can see your posts and may vehemently disagree with you), then maybe s/he should get pulled up short by his/her employer - just like Phil Robertson was.

When posting on social media, even when using our personal accounts, we are speaking in a public space, where everything we share becomes at least semi-permanent, and we should always be aware of that fact. That doesn't mean that we're not free to say what we wish, it just means that we must always be aware that our speech carries consequences, intended and otherwise. Violentacrez is a despicable human being whose trolling and pornographic postings on Reddit cost him his job, even though his postings took place outside of work, on his own time, and on his own personal accounts. He paid the price for being a sleazeball, and very few folks will weep any tears on his behalf, but just as he had every right to be a sleazeball, society retains the right to react to his nastiness, even in ways which he doesn't approve of. It's not a violation of his rights, its just the consequences of his actions.

The equation works both ways. Mr. Robertson should face consequences for his public statement about homosexuals and African-Americans under Jim Crow, but David W. Guth has to accept the same kind of responsibility for publicly wishing that the next people to die in a mass shooting be the sons and daughters of NRA members. The left (where I usually hang my political philosophic hat) can be as guilty of despicable hate-speech as the right, and deserves to be called upon it just as strongly. Scholars too, are human beings with opinions, emotions, knee-jerk reactions, and prejudices, and when those things become hate-speech, libel, or outrageous vitriol in public forums like social media - then, yeah, they deserved to get called on it, and to face the consequences.

By the way, even if you are right, if your speech has every ethical and moral precept known to history backing it up, you are still open to the consequences of that speech - good and bad. Better people than us have spoken truth publicly and paid terrible prices for doing so, even when we today find their positions self-evident and proper. No one is exempt - ever. It behooves all of us to think before we speak, and when we do speak to be prepared to face the consequences that arise from our words.

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