Social media and academic freedom: It's complicated

There's a fine line between personal and professional when your students follow you on Twitter

The rise of social media has muddied the waters of First-Amendment rights. This is especially true in the academic sphere, where colleges and universities are struggling to establish clear-cut policies for professors' personal social media use, Gretel Kauffman writes for the Christian Science Monitor. 

Two weeks ago, Glenn Reynolds, a professor at The University of Tennessee College of Law (UT Law) tweeted a statement on his personal Twitter account that many on campus found offensive. The tweet, which read "Run them down," was Reynold's response to a large group of protestors that blocked a highway in Charlotte, N.C.

In the week following the tweet, outraged voices demanded that UT Law fire Reynolds. But after Reynolds apologized and deleted the tweet, the school declared it would not fire Reynolds—or punish him. School officials said the tweet counted as free speech and was therefore protected under the First Amendment.

UT Law's decision has since stirred up a debate about academic freedom and social media.

John K. Wilson, the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, says professors should not be censored on social media accounts that aren't officially connected to their respective schools.

"Professors do not represent an institution when they post on their personal social media. It must always be presumed to be their own views, unless they actively claim to speak for an institution," argues Wilson. 

Restructure academic policy

But Don Eron, a retired instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder and a member of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, disagrees. He argues that personal opinions via social media are never completely separate from a professor's professional image.

Kauffman writes that the debate centers on the increasingly blurry distinction between what is considered to be "on-campus" and what is considered to be "off-campus" in this digital world.

Since students frequently communicate with professors outside of the physical classroom or office hours—via email and online course home pages, and other digital spheres—a professor's personal messages can, as Eron says, "easily influence the context through which one understands the professor's professional work."

Some schools have taken this into consideration in disciplining professors. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, revoked a job offer from Steven Salaita, a professor who sent out offensive tweets about Israel.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which governs Kansas' six public universities, also mandated that schools punish faculty and staff who use social media unprofessionally.

Eron recognizes both sides of the spectrum, and the dangers of implementing these punishments, adding "...if administrations were to make a practice of disciplining speech that they don't like, then soon enough faculty will stop speaking" (Kauffman, Christian Science Monitor, 9/28).

Social media guidelines for institutions, faculty, and students

Next in Today's Briefing

Zika poses a real threat to college-aged students, an expert says. Here's what to do about it.

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague