Social media tests limits of academic freedom

A national debate among faculty has professors questioning their speech rights on social media outlets.

Christopher Aadland

When a Big Ten university took back a professor’s job offer last month due to his controversial Twitter posts, it sparked a national debate about the freedom of academic expression and speech on social media.

Academics across the nation — including one at the University of Minnesota — are rallying in defense of professor Stephen Salaita, after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew its offer of a tenured position because of Salaita’s tweets about the conflict in Gaza.

Now, some in academia are questioning if schools should be able to monitor their faculty members’ comments on social
media and how that will affect the future of academic freedom policies.

To show his support for Salaita and freedom of academic expression, University of Minnesota regents professor Allen Isaacman recently pulled out of a lecture series at the University of Illinois where he was slated to give a keynote address.

“Silencing faculty or punishing them for their political, moral or ethical views is indefensible,” the history, African-American and African studies professor wrote in an email to the head of Illinois’ lecture series committee.

Isaacman, who said he hasn’t hesitated to state his opinions on controversial issues in the past, said he has faced no backlash from the University’s administration and has always felt safe sharing his views on campus.

The University’s policy on academic freedom and responsibility ensures academic “freedom, without institutional discipline or restraint … to explore all avenues of … creative expression, and to speak or write on matters of public concern ….”

Although the policy doesn’t specifically discuss social media, William McGeveran, an associate professor of communications and technology and free speech law, said any University policies regarding academic expression and speech must be in line with the First Amendment because the University is a public institution.

But some academics say certain speech or social media use shouldn’t be immune from punishment by school officials.

Jane Kirtley, University media ethics and law professor and director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, said higher education institutions should be able to hold faculty members accountable if they are using their social media presence or freedom of expression to commit a crime or voiceobscenities.

Isaacman said most faculty members at the University have applauded his decision to step down from the lecture series, but some colleagues didn’t support him.

Similarly, Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors, has told national media outlets that the school was justified to retract its job offer, saying he considered Salaita’s comments to be hate speech that incited violence. He also noted that the professor was not yet officially hired.

Kirtley said any university, as an employer, should have constitutional grounding to decide not to hire an individual in certain cases.

Social media outlets like Twitter — which allows only 140 characters in each tweet — can make it especially difficult for institutions to determine whether comments made by faculty are justifiable, McGeveran said, because there’s a limited amount of space to express an opinion.

“That medium lends itself to these kinds of disagreements more than a long, detailed speech or journal article,” he said.

Regardless, McGeveran believes faculty members should be active users of Twitter and other forms of social media to remain engaged with the public and to encourage conversation about important topics.

But that may require schools and the government to evolve their policies regarding social media and academic freedom, he said.

Kirtley said higher education institutions support faculty who complete groundbreaking research or promote the school in other ways, but she said they should also stand by faculty who take on controversial, sometimes divisive stances.

“Universities are supposed to be places for academic freedom and expression,” she said. “That means you have to protect unpopular ideas and concepts.”

Additionally, if faculty hiring decisions are influenced by previously expressed opinions, the reputation and quality of those institutions will suffer, Isaacman said.

“You can’t make an offer to a faculty member with tenure and then withdraw it for political reasons,” he said. “Why would any distinguished faculty member want to come to an institution under that situation?”

To achieve a healthy academic atmosphere, all speech and expression should be encouraged on a college campus, Isaacman said, even if it is defending an unpopular or controversial opinion.

“We want people to take strong and clear positions and encourage students and other faculty to debate them,” he said. “That’s what higher education is all about.”