“The object of power is power.”
— O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984
To support the basic right to freedom of speech and to stand up for academic freedom, faculty, staff, and students from Kansas universities attended today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting in Topeka, Kansas. The room was packed: standing room only. The Board of Regents were cheerful, chummy, and completely indifferent to the rights of those whom they allegedly represent. They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile. Fred Logan told us that the Regents respect us, and passed a policy that does not respect academic freedom.
He is a canny politician, and I could see him going places. I mean that both as a compliment to him and as a caution to the people of Kansas. In other words, I am being both sarcastic and completely sincere. Not only does Mr. Logan have the ability to say (with apparent sincerity) words like “respect” without actually meaning them, but the very first thing he did upon entering the room was come up and introduce himself to me. (I was seated in the front row.)
Fred Logan [smiling]: Philip Nel? Fred Logan.
I stand up. We shake hands.
Logan: It’s nice to meet you.
Me: It’s interesting to meet you.
Logan: I’ve read what you’ve written about me, and I’ve looked at your website. Don DeLillo?
Logan: I read Falling Man, and I was thinking about reading White Noise next. Good choice?
Me: Yes. White Noise is a great choice. That’s the one to read. [Pause.] So, are you really going to go through with this policy? Or —
Logan: [Smiling, makes non-committal sound, walks away, waves, and takes his place at the Regents' Desk of Governance.]
Hence, my first tweet:
— Philip Nel (@philnel) May 14, 2014
And then, the meeting got underway.
Regents’ Chair Fred Logan said of the revised social media policy, “I want to thank the members of the workgroup who worked on this. I in particular want to recognize the co-chairs of the group. They did spectacular work.” He added, “I also want to welcome and thank all the members of the faculty for coming.”
That was just one of many examples where Mr. Logan said one thing, but the actions of the Regents conveyed a rather different message. The revised policy retains all punitive parts. You can still be fired for a broad array of vaguely defined speech, such as uttering something “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” Presumably, a blog post (like this one) that is critical of the Kansas Board of Regents might be included in this restriction. You can also be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.” This particular language, of course, inspired our “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline” t-shirts. How would one go about measuring the harmonious content of speech? How might we determine whether speech is disloyal? And as for impairing discipline, if I were to write that the Kansas Board of Regents have brought shame to the state of Kansas, and that all of them should resign effective immediately, is that a fireable offense?
Because they have done precisely that. In addition to all the negative national publicity this has already received, here’s a story from National Public Radio, this evening. Kansas is already known for being anti-science (evolution? just a theory!). Now, Kansas is known for its opposition to freedom of speech. If you’re trying to attract top faculty to Kansas universities, you have your work cut out for you. When Fred Logan got to the social media policy, Emporia State University’s Sheryl Lidzy read — on behalf of the Kansas Council of Faculty Senate Presidents — a great defense of freedom of speech. It included such gems as this:
we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the disciplinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.
there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy.
The Kansas Board of Regents were unmoved. And yet Fred Logan said, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.”
I found these sort of responses fascinating. Throughout this process, the Board’s attitude towards faculty has been condescending, patronizing, even hostile. The policy itself establishes new ways to fire people, based on very broadly defined objectionable speech. However, Regent Logan says, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.” The vast gap between word and deed is truly breathtaking. This is why I think that Mr. Logan may have a bright future in Kansas politics. Directly after Professor Lidzy’s statement, Logan got up, and rushed over to give her an award for her service, which — he said — the Board very much appreciated. Again, he is thanking her, even while he completely disregards what she has said.
Spectacle of Board giving certificates of appreciation to people denouncing their leadership. — Jonathan Dresner (@jondresner) May 14, 2014
He was practically jumping out of his seat to tell Lidzey she’d be getting framed congratulations for her service. pic.twitter.com/OwQr1esJ1o
— John Hoopes (@jwhoopes2) May 14, 2014
At the meeting we also learned that the Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’s credit rating (thanks to Governor Brownback and the legislature’s fiscal recklessness) will result in higher borrowing rates for Kansas universities. As my colleague Don Hedrick pointed out after the meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents’ actions also downgrades the rating of Kansas universities.
The Regents passed their punitive social media policy. Of the policy, Fred Logan said, “This will be the strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual.” While it is true that the Regents did adopt the workgroup’s recommendations on language affirming academic freedom, it is also true that the Regents retained the original language eviscerating academic freedom. So, if this is their “strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom,” that’s hardly a cause for rejoicing.
With smiles, conviviality, and bland affirmations of freedom of speech, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that tells faculty and staff: watch what you say. Of course, Kansas is merely part of a trend of cracking down on freedom of speech. South Carolina’s legislature has punished the College of Charleston for assigning a book, and installed a white supremacist as their new president. A dean at the University of Saskatchewan was just fired for speaking his mind. So, the Kansas Board of Regents are not unusual. They are normal. And they are the future. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine sensible shoes stamping on a human face—forever.1
1. The actual line from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But the Kansas Board of Regents tends to wear sensible shoes, and not boots.
Update, 10:30 pm, 15 May 2014
in response to Nena Beckley’s comment below, I’ve added (in the comments) a link to the revised policy. I’m also adding that information here:
- The revised policy appears on pp. 33-36 of yesterday’s meeting agenda (pdf)
- The bottom of my original post has links to many months of coverage.
- Excerpts from some of the negative reviews of the original policy
- Stephen Wolgast, “A dangerous challenge to free speech in Kansas,” Kansas City Star, 13 May 2014. “Who will judge the loyalty of my Facebook post?”
- Coverage of yesterday’s decision.
- Peggy Lowe, “In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 14 May 2014
- Peggy Lowe, “Strict Social Media Policy Approved by Kansas Board of Regents,” Kansas Public Media, KCUR 89.3 FM, 14 May 2014. This is an earlier version of the story that ran nationally.
- Scott Rothschild, “Regents approve social media policy; faculty, staff attend meeting to urge rejection,” Lawrence Journal-World, 14 May 2014.
- Celia Llopis-Jespen, “Faculty critical of Regents’ revised social media policy,” Topeka Capitol-Journal, 14 May 2014.
- Rhonda Holman, “Regents should revise social media policy,” Wichita Eagle, 14 May 2014.
- “Kansas Regents adopt revised social media policy; Some university professors believe it takes away their rights,” Kansas First News, 27 KSNT, 14 May 2014.
- Alan Greenblatt, “Kansas University Board Revises Its Free Speech Guidelines,” National Public Radio, reprinted on 90.9 WBUR, 14 May 2014.
- Associated Press, “Kansas Regents Adopt Revised Social Media Policy,” KSAL.com, 14 May 2014.
- Nick DeSantis, “Kansas Board Adopts Policy Allowing Discipline for Misuse of Social Media,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 May 2014
- Bryan Lowry, “Kansas Board of Regents Adopt Revised Social Media Policy,” Kansas City Star, 15 May 2014.
- “Kansas Regents Lose Respect with Bungled Social Media Policy,” Kansas City Star, 15 May 2014.
- Susan Kruth, “Kansas Board of Regents Approve Self-Contradictory, Unclear Social Media Policy,” The FIRE: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 15 May 2014.