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April 17, 2014

Senate group to look into electronic speech issues

The University Senate has established a subcommittee to discuss the issue of faculty online freedom of speech and get a firm grasp of any related Pitt policies.

Building on the discussion at the April 1 Faculty Assembly meeting, the tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) approved forming a subcommittee to look at any Pitt policies related to academic freedom and electronic media, TAFC co-chair Barry Gold said.

Gold, a faculty member in the Department of Pharmaceutical Science, volunteered to chair the subcommittee. Other committee members are expected to be named soon.

If the subcommittee judges existing Pitt policies to be adequate, then providing faculty with a summary of those policies may be all that is needed, Gold said. If current University policies are deemed inadequate, the subcommittee could request that the University Senate and the administration address the issue. Gold said that the subcommittee is not the appropriate body to create any new policies regarding online speech.

The topic made national headlines 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 the next day, prompting the governor to call the university president.

In another incident, this one at the University of Kansas, a faculty member tweeted on his personal account that he wished harm upon the children of National Rifle Association leaders after the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. In a reportedly unrelated move, the Kansas Board of Regents implemented a social media policy, considered by many as “threatening academic freedom and shared governance,” according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Representatives from the state’s six public four-year institutions responded by creating a policy that protects their rights on social media. Unlike the Wisconsin-LaCrosse incident, the one at Kansas arose outside the academic sphere, but the ramifications were felt within the university as well.

At Pitt, TAFC members viewed the creation of the subcommittee as more of a proactive measure, aimed at aiding in a University response if similar situations were to occur here.

One TAFC member said: “What seems to happen at these institutions is when something like this goes down there’s sort of a little bit of chaos because the administration really doesn’t know how to respond to it and you get totally different types of responses.”

The subcommittee also will make certain any existing policy is readily accessible to faculty. Some University documents and policies may be difficult to access, another committee member said, adding that the newly formed subcommittee will need to provide easy access to any guidelines related to online faculty speech. “I do think we should have one coherent document that’s readily available,” the committee member said. “What is available and what is the policy and what people know and don’t know has been an issue with our committee for a long time.”

“More clarity would seem to be the best protection of the faculty as long as in this process we don’t end up eroding the free speech rights and academic free rights of faculty either as individuals or as faculty,” another TAFC member said.

—Alex Oltmanns