Higher Education is Not a Reality TV Show; or, How A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” Differs from the Kansas Board of Regents

Free Speech ZoneOn Facebook, a friend recently asked me how the recent controversy over the Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy differs from A&E’s suspending of Phil Robertson from the Duck Dynasty reality TV show. I see why she asks: The Kansas Board of Regents has rescinded faculty and staff’s right to free speech, just as A&E has rescinded Phil Robertson’s right to free speech.

First, let me go on record as saying that I support Phil Robertson’s right to express his belief that homosexuality is immoral, and to use the language of Christianity to do so. I think that using religion to advocate bigotry dishonors the Christian faith, and I wish that he would express his ignorance in a different way. But the First Amendment grants him the right to express foolish ideas, and I support that right.

A&E, however, is a corporation. If it chooses not to grant Mr. Robertson a venue for his homophobia, he can still express it — just not on the Duck Dynasty television program.

But here’s where reality TV and academia part ways. The free and open exchange of ideas is at the core of the academic enterprise, and one venue for that exchange is social media — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy says that faculty and staff can be fired for impairing “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” or for doing anything “contrary to the best interest of the university.” In addition to being both broad and vague, that language hampers our ability to do our jobs.

cartoon by Ann Telnaes

A university is different from a corporation. Academics who work for universities exchange ideas because it’s our job to exchange ideas. It is at the core of what the academic enterprise is all about. Thanks to this new social media policy, we now lack some of the basic tools for sharing research.

For example, the Kansas Board of Regents is appointed by Governor Sam Brownback, who believes that gay and lesbian people do not deserve human rights (such as, say, the right to marry). What if you’re doing research on human rights? Or teaching Walt Whitman, Alison Bechdel, or Oscar Wilde? Would that be “contrary to the best interest of the university”? Would it foster disharmony? If your university president is as prejudiced as your governor, talking about these ideas openly might give you pause. I am pleased to report that Kansas State University’s president supports the rights of LGBTQ people, but university presidents come and go. Policies last for a long time. And this sort of policy impedes the exchange of ideas.

In crafting this policy, the Kansas Board of Regents did not consult the faculty, staff, or administration of the Regents institutions. Had they done so, they might have avoided this debacle. Indeed, the most productive way forward would be for them to rescind the new social media edict, and instead work with elected representatives from the faculty and university administrations, to craft a sensible social media policy.

Further information:

Image credits: cartoon by the great Ann Telnaes; “Free Speech Zone” map from UpperLeft.

7 Comments »

  1. Eric Said,

    December 21, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    You are simply wrong. Either free speech applies to all and is an actual right, or free speech allows you to say what you want, but doesn’t dictate how others may respond.

    All your lame “article” does is throw out a bunch of what ifs, not anything that has actually happened or is real. So who is the prejudiced one? You. as you’re so sure what the Kansas Board of Regents would say.

    This is a sensible social media policy, as much as A&E suspending Robertson is sensible policy. You can’t have one and not the other. The fact is, your cartoon shows what an idiot you are. You’re totally fine with Duck Dynasty having penalties for what they say, but not ok with teachers having the same. The cartoon above tells the real story. Its all one way or the other.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    December 21, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Eric. Well, we may have to agree to disagree here.

    Though, to be honest, I don’t think our positions are as disparate as you say. As noted above, I agree that free speech applies to Mr. Robertson, and that he should be allowed to express his bigotry openly. And he still has that right to free speech. He cannot air his views on Duck Dynasty, but he can air them anywhere else he likes.

    In contrast, under the Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy, faculty and staff employed by Regents cannot speak anywhere we like. We never had the TV show to begin with, but we used to have social media — indeed, that’s a way that a lot of ideas get exchanged these days. So, we now have fewer venues for our speech than Mr. Robertson does. The Board of Regents is saying that any sort of speech they don’t like is grounds for firing us.

    And, as I say, one difference between higher education and Duck Dynasty is that higher education is founded upon the free exchange of ideas. That’s our job. If faculty at Regents universities are unable to do that, then we’ll be unable to do our jobs, and universities in Kansas will cease to be universities.

    I hope this comment helped clarify my position. Either way, thanks for reading.

  3. Norman Said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 3:02 am

    I see your point: it’s imperative for academics to have a free exchange of ideas, but for non-academic citizens in a democracy, not so much. We’ll just have to learn to adapt to our ever more circumscribed liberties as a condition of holding employment, but you must be exempt. This is an odd, recent, and deformed vision of what a democratic culture should be. Perhaps you will reconsider.

  4. Bill Said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    Norman,

    The idea that “academics” are somehow above the rest of us, and therefore are deserving of special privledge (in this case greater freedom of speech) isn’t a new idea. It’s endemic to a Marxist view of society. The Intelligentsia is above all of us poor souls who make up the proletariate. They need their special privledges to aid them in the noble work of saving us from our own stupidity.

  5. Frank Gray Said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

    Interesting that you say Phil Robertson’s “bigotry” dishonors the Christian faith. Are you aware that he was quoting the Bible? Let’s be consistent. If his comments are bigotry then Christianity is bigoted. I, for one, support his right to believe and quote the Scriptures and don’t charge him with bigotry for doing so.

  6. Philip Nel Said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    Norman, Bill, Frank Gray: Thank you all for your comments.

    Norman: As noted in the comment directly above yours, I would advocate freedom of speech for all. And, as noted above, Phil Robertson is free to air his views anywhere he likes, except for the A&E television program. My attempt, in this post, was to point out the a reality television program and a university serve different functions.

    Bill: I guess I’d say to you what I also say to Norman — that all people deserve the right to freedom of speech, and that a university requires the free and open exchange of ideas in order to be a university. I’d also say that, in this instance, a Marxist would advise the proletariat to organize and fight back against the bourgeoise. Indeed, Marxists would also try to make people aware of the (capitalist) systems that oppress them, consider the ways in which dominant ideology makes them unaware of their own exploitation.

    Frank: The Bible contains a lot of dos and don’ts. It prohibits the eating of oysters, clam, & shrimp (Leviticus 11.10-11), though says it’s OK to eat locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers (Leviticus 11.22-23). It also tells us that adulterers must be put to death (Leviticus 20.10), that people who work on Sundays should be put to death (Exodus 35.2), and that if you lend money, you shouldn’t charge interest (Exodus 22.25). It also says that if you kill your slave, you’ll be punished, but if the slave survives, then you won’t be punished (Exodus 21.20-21). I don’t hear a lot of people speaking out against the eating of shellfish or advocating the murder of those work on Sundays.

    The Bible can be — and has been — used to justify a lot of different things. In the 19th century, slaveholders cited it as moral justification for slavery. During the movement for women’s suffrage, opponents cited the Bible to justify denying rights to women. The current use of the bible to deny rights to gays falls in this long and — in my view — dishonorable tradition.

    I prefer not to read Jesus as a bigot. If you do, then that is of course your right. You’ll be following the tradition of racists and sexists, of course. But you’re welcome to do so. And so is Phil Robertson. I prefer not to use the Bible as a justification for bigotry against any group.

    Again, thanks to all three of you for your comments. I expect we may continue to disagree on this subject, but it’s good to have a conversation and try to understand one another.

  7. Derek Hoff Said,

    January 1, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    Norman, Bill, and Gray

    You are forgetting the little matter that Robertson signed a contract that limited what he could say … most media figures sign so-called morals clauses. I assume you support contract rights, do you not? Kansas professors signed contracts with the understanding that they enjoyed free speech rights … these have been taken away from them after signing contracts. If Robertson did not like the contract offered to him, he did not need to sign it.

    Marxist? Really, that’s the best you can do — meaningless name calling?

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