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Social media causes academic freedom concern

A wider reach for public speech can damage reputations

DeKALB – David Gunkel thinks that businesses and universities need to formalize social media policies and soon. 

A wider audience for public speech has created vulnerabilities – and liabilities – for all involved. Social media is somewhat altering discourse on free speech, said Gunkel, a Northern Illinois University communications professor and author of numerous books and articles about culture, new media and ethics. 

“The clearer we can be upfront the better,” he said. “The real problem is that we are operating in a vacuum and making it up after the fact.” 

As corporations and colleges try to manage their reputations, employees may feel the need to censor themselves – lest they find themselves out of a job. It gets more complicated when you add the concept of academic and intellectual freedom into the mix, Gunkel said.

Universities in particular have to be cautious when considering social media policy, specifically to protect those intellectual freedoms, Gunkel said. 

“It’s more complicated, especially with professors that have been granted tenure and the freedom to engage in intellectual freedom, to do research that is political or critical of government or other organizations,” he said. ”What they publish in academic journals is protected. … But what they do on social media doesn’t have that same protection. There is a disconnect.” 

Northern Illinois University, one of DeKalb’s largest employers, has long had a social media policy in place, as well as a lengthy code of ethics encompasses the idea of academic and intellectual freedom. 

“Collegiality is not congeniality nor is it conformity or excessive deference to the judgements of colleagues, supervisors and administrators; these are flatly oppositional to the free and open development of ideas,” the code reads. “Evidence of collegiality is demonstrated by the protection of academic freedom, the capacity of colleagues to carry out their professional functions without obstruction and the ability of a community of scholars to thrive in a vigorous and collaborative intellectual climate.” 

Hans-Joerg Tiede, professor and chairman of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University and a member of the American Association of University Professors committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, also sees that disconnect and believes it’s not right. 

“Recently it’s just the medium that has changed. There is no difference between writing an editorial for a local paper or speaking on Twitter. There shouldn’t be different standards applied based on where you speak out,” he said.

Earlier in June, the AAUP put the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on their censure list over the case of Steven Salaita, who became notable after the university rescinded a job offer following Salaita’s political tweets concerning Israel. 

“We certainly hope the censure of the university is a signal to other institutions that we will continue to be watchful of this conduct,” Tiede said. 

Academic freedom involves the ability to speak, research and teach freely, even if the topic is controversial in nature or involves criticism of the government or university itself, Tiede said. The concept of freedom is essential to the excellence of school. 

Limits to the freedom to share on social networking sites exist and mostly deal with professional ethics. Tiede said. 

“A professor isn’t allowed to provide information about students grades or personal information on social media,” he said. “Sexual harassment is clearly not permitted.” 

Colleges are free to respond to controversial opinions, Tiede said. In May, the University of Boston openly disagreed with an incoming professor who tweeted a number of what some considered racist comments. Those types of reactions are legitimate and appropriate. 

“That is how [universities] should respond if they believe the public speech is something that doesn’t express the values of the institution,” Tiede said. 

Going forward, however, Tiede said he wasn’t sure if things would improve. 

“I think institutions will continue to be involved in trying to police public speech,” he said. “We are concerned about where it is going to go.” 

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