From Kansas, the state that gave us the most repressive social media policy in the country, a negative model for defenders of academic freedom everywhere, now comes HB 2234, a proposed piece of legislation that declares:
The state board of regents, the board of trustees of any community college, the board of regents of any municipal university and the governing body of any technical college shall adopt and implement, or require to be implemented, a policy and plan which prohibits an employee from providing or using such employee’s official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column. Such policy and plan shall prohibit employees from providing or using such employee’s official title in a newspaper opinion column only when the opinion of the employee concerns a person who currently holds any elected public office in this state, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office in this state or any matter pending before any legislative or public body in this state. This section shall not prohibit an employee from providing such employee’s personal opinion on a person currently holding an elected position, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office or any matter pending before a legislative body as long as such employee does so without providing or using such employee’s official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column.
The hallowed 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, jointly formulated by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges, and endorsed since then by nearly 300 scholarly organizations, states:
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Of course, it would be difficult to indicate that one is not speaking for an institution if one is barred from identifying that institution. But at least the legislation does “not prohibit” the publication of personal opinions. And, after all, some might think that barring public employees from identifying themselves as such in a political campaign could be an appropriate mechanism for insulating government institutions and employees from electoral politics and in that way create one obstacle to the development of patronage-type systems.
But perhaps those people — and certainly the Kansas legislators proposing this — haven’t thought it all through. For instance, what if there is a proposal on the ballot to increase funding for public higher education and for faculty salary increases? Under this proposed law, faculty members — barred from identifying their place of employment but not from offering their personal opinions — might flood the newspapers with letter supporting the increase without the public being aware of their economic interest in the proposal! Or imagine that a candidate for public office takes the position that vaccinations, currently a hot political issue, should be optional. Under this proposed law, a professor of immunology at a public medical school could not identify as such in a letter criticizing the candidate’s ignorant views. I suspect readers can, with little effort, think up scores of additional examples of how this law would stifle opinion, mislead readers, and be overall entirely counterproductive.
Finally, one has to wonder why only newspaper opinion columns (does this include letters to the editor as well?) are singled out. Has the Internet not yet reached Kansas, or do they simply think that their social media policies have already effectively limited expression in that arena?
Really, one can’t help but ask yet again, in the words of Thomas Frank, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”