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April 3, 2014

Does Pitt need an online speech policy?

Should Pitt institute an online speech policy for faculty?

That question was debated at the April 1 Faculty Assembly meeting and will be on the agenda of the next Senate tenure and academic freedom committee meeting.

University Senate President Michael B. Spring told Assembly members that in a poll of more than 70 four-year colleges, half said they were considering instituting such a policy. The issue has gained traction recently after an incident at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse was reported in detail by The Chronicle of Higher Education. A faculty member there emailed her students saying an assignment would be “impossible to complete until the Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.” The email was shared by students on Twitter and known by thousands by the next day, prompting the governor to call the university president.

“If you read the story in The Chronicle of Higher Education it’s, I think, an academic’s worst nightmare,” Spring said.

“The question is whether the Senate, in your opinion, should be proactive on this matter?”

Some Assembly members were firmly opposed to such a policy. “I think we should be proactive about this, and I think we should be proactive in ensuring that there’s no policy implemented to restrict the freedom of expression in faculty,” one member said. “We’ve gone down this road before historically in this country and it’s a big mistake.”

Another member argued that it’s imperative for students to feel safe in the classroom: “I don’t think it’s OK for professors to say whatever they want, whenever they want.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education article is posted on the Senate’s website, where faculty are encouraged to leave a comment.

“What is very clear is a sense of the Assembly that this matter deserves our attention,” Spring said.

—Alex Oltmanns