The Kansas Board of Regents recently approved a new policy designed to restrict what employees are allowed to write on social media. The policy is the result of a tweet by journalism professor David Guth after the killing of 12 people at the Washington Naval Yard in Washington, D.C. Guth wrote, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”
Obviously, Guth’s tweet is an ugly comment, but should such comments be prohibited in a free society? Apparently in Kansas the answer is yes. The response of the Kansas Board of Regents was to restrict freedom of speech in a policy affecting faculty members and staffers at the state’s six universities, 19 community colleges and six technical schools. These employees are now prohibited from writing/saying anything on social media that would incite violence, disclose confidential student information or release protected data, or run “contrary to the best interests of the university.”
The first three of these make sense. Americans have long recognized that some restriction of free speech is necessary in a civil society. However, the last is a dangerous step in the direction of authoritarian rule in which institutions — governmental or otherwise — attempt to control ideas of the public that leaders of the institution deem offensive. And in a wonderfully Orwellian twist of Newspeak, the Kansas Board of Regents chairman, Fred Logan, defended the new policy by, in essence, stating that it will strengthen academic freedom by limiting free speech.
Many countries have experimented with this model for controlling the public: Germany, Russia, Japan, China … the list is long. The point is not to equate the Kansas regents to the authoritarian governments of the past or present, but merely to highlight the fact that when the leaders of institutions attempt to control the expression of unapproved ideas on behalf of the collective good of a specific community or organization, they inherently undermine free speech and, in the case of Kansas, academic freedom.
How is the potential author of a tweet or Facebook comment going to know whether his/her comment violates the regents’ definition of the best interests of the university? And who defines those interests? Are the staffers and faculty members of the colleges in Kansas not part of the process of defining the interests of their institutions? And don’t they do this through exercising the right to free speech and academic freedom?
In her biography of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall attributed a very simple, but profound, idea to her subject: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This mindset is the foundation of a free society. It is the basic ideal that our soldiers go off to defend and often die to protect. It is the most basic right in a free society, because it allows for the public to challenge their leaders and to prevent the rise of authoritarian rule.
Furthermore, this idea is also the foundation of an open and healthy academic community. The single most important job of administrators at any academic institution, regardless of the level, is to protect the right of everyone to express their opinions openly and to debate and discuss different ideas, even if at times those ideas may be offensive to many. The way to eliminate offensive ideas is not to suppress them, but to allow others to see the ugliness and come to an informed awareness of how and why those ideas offend.
To prohibit people from speaking freely, even if at times what they say is offensive, is contrary to the values expressed in the Constitution, which so many have fought for and died to protect over the course of American history.
When we react to policies such as the one in Kansas, we should think about the comment of author Salman Rushdie, who after publishing his book “The Satanic Verses” experienced the ordering of his execution for blasphemy against Islam. As Rushdie states: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
John W. Traphagan is a professor of religious studies at The University of Texas at Austin. John Harney is an assistant professor of history at Centre College in Kentucky.