With Liberty and Free Speech for All?

One media issue that has come up repeatedly over the past few years has been that of free speech rights of state-funded college and university professors using social media when they link their names to their positions within the state systems. This issue blew up in a large way several years ago at the University of Kansas (http://preview.tinyurl.com/laf6t23; http://tinyurl.com/q45mkdq), and last year we saw another instance of this at the University of Illinois (http://preview.tinyurl.com/qckjs6r). The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported about and addressed the concern many times (for example, http://chronicle.com/article/Worried-About-Message/141773; http://chronicle.com/article/AAUP-Members-Are-Warned-of/147067/; http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Are-Divided-on-Need/145225/), and it became national news when a Division I football coach at a state university was seen in a political TV ad for one of the state’s U.S. senators (http://cjonline.com/news/state/2014-10-31/roberts-ad-causes-backlash-k-state). I saw the subject raise its head again this week, again in Kansas (http://preview.tinyurl.com/ko9zgbk), with Jonathan Shorman’s Topeka Capital-Journal article noting, “House Bill 2234 would require the governing boards of community colleges and state universities to implement policies prohibiting employees from providing titles when authoring or contributing to newspaper opinion columns, which includes letters, op-eds and editorials [about lawmakers or other elected officials].”

This is an interesting mass media topic that we need to make students aware of, particularly when we’re talking about media law. “First Amendment rights” is a term tossed around frequently, especially when we’re dealing with journalism students who employ it regularly but often don’t understand the nuances of the concept.

In such talks, one of the first things I like to point out to media students is the content of and the rights provided by the First Amendment. Once we get past the five guarantees of the amendment, I ask, “ What does this amendment really say?” I’m usually met with, “We can say what we want,” “We have the right to express our opinions,” and “We can say anything as long as we don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater.” “So it’s our rights — the rights of the people — that this is directed toward?” I ask, and they all nod. But then I point out to them that the actual first words of the amendment are “Congress shall make no law respecting. . . .”

This usually stops them in their tracks; although they may have read this many times, they often realize for maybe the first time that this amendment is not an absolute right, automatically handed to them as citizens, but rather a restriction placed on their legislators regarding the laws that will be put into place that will then guide their own actions.

Media law classes can move from here into deeper discussions of absolutism versus the belief that the Constitution is a living, breathing document, and how our justices interpret the Constitution using different theories; other media classes might take time to think about how this affects the words and ideas they put forth in the students’ own communications. After all, “freedom of speech” has been known to interfere with other freedoms, and someone’s rights have to take precedent over someone else’s.

But returning to the idea of whether college professors have the right of free speech when they engage social or mass media, I think there are several concepts that students should have to consider.

First, I like for them to think about whether professors, by virtue of their positions as representatives of higher learning, should be held to higher standards than other people, inasmuch as their students should be able to look up to them as examples of model citizens. Should professors be aware that, even during their free time, they are role models and examples of people who think and act logically and professionally, and should therefore be more tempered in their expressions?

I think many students will give their instructors leeway in this area (at least the students I’ve taught have); they are pretty much on board with the idea that freedom of expression is important to everyone. There has to be a place for everyone to be the person he or she is, with the same right to have their own opinions.

We can get them thinking further, however, when we ask them what is expected of professionals (including their professors) in relation to their jobs, especially when it comes to those in news media and social media. Journalists, for example, have to be heads-up regarding conflicts of interest and professional ethics both in and outside of the newsrooms (cable TV talking heads being a different matter, of course; they make their livings being overtly biased). But those who have built their careers on being “objective and non-biased,” at least as much as one can be, are always conscious of any actions that might call that objectivity into question. One woman I knew who worked at an NPR affiliate station said she was constantly aware of what she was saying, even in groups of people she was fairly confident she knew well; one slip-up, she said, could make a difference in how professionally she was taken. Another man I knew who did sports reporting for a major network told me he was telephoned by his company within minutes of posting something of a political nature on a social media forum; they were keeping close tabs on all comments, and he had to remove his immediately.

Disclosure in news media in any matter of personal interest is critical. Often even the perception of bias can be fatal to a career, especially in today’s “gotcha” climate.

Given, then, that professors at (even partially) state-funded institutions are paid by the taxes of the states’ citizens, should they be required to hold their tongues about political matters in public forums because those tax-paying citizens represent all different political beliefs?

Again, I have found that most students will stand up for professors’ rights to be regular citizens, just as they say professors have the right to vote as regular citizens. However, I remind them, the problem always comes down to whether these professors should then be able to identify themselves, in their personal “About me” sections of their social media accounts, as employees of the state universities or colleges. These positions are, after all, their jobs, just as one would indicate that she is a CPA for a certain company, or he is a mechanic at a certain car dealership. But does this connection to a state institution of higher learning automatically mean that these people speak for the agency when they offer their political opinions outside of the classroom? Or is it more that the instructors’ professional titles, assigned to them by and associated with these institutions of higher learning, bolster their credibility (their ethos) when they make the arguments and statements they do in social media forums?

Sometimes these discussions take a turn when I remind students that they are in control of their own branding from the moment they step into the online arena. Free speech matters or not, their future employers may be watching them, and the same is true for state employees. Hiring contracts at private firms give these employers the right to restrict employees’ speech outside of work, and states are beginning to have the same idea.

With no right or wrong (posted here, at least), it’s just a media concept the students need to think about.