Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Caution: Tedious terrrain ahead.
Blogs in general suck. They provide an outlet for those of twittish dispositions to flog away at their erectile little egos with at least a hint of audience, which makes it exciting for them, but they do not, for the most part, provide much in the way of good information or incisive opinions. And they are beginning to raise problems about exercising the right to freedom of speech.
Actually, the problem is not with the principle of free speech and the rules that apply to its application; the problem is that many people get so absorbed in their own egos or get so whipped into malicious furies that they cannot or will not consider the rules.
I have been asked numerous times to provide an account of how academic freedom and freedom of speech is treated by the governing documents for state faculty in South Dakota. The reason I am asked is because I was a faculty member on the negotiating team that put the statements regarding those subjects into the collective bargaining agreement. At the time, I was asked to prepare the drafts for the statements. The statements are not original. We looked at the statements used by professional academic organizations and universities throughout the country, and found that they all incorporated the language and concepts of a statement formulated by the American Association of University Professors. We used this as our base language, and while being advised by AAUP staff members, we met and discussed for hours on end certain phrases and language.
At the time negotiations on this subject began, NSU was under censure by AAUP for firing a political science professor whose exercise of free speech had offended students and colleagues. After the university president and some of we professors worked to get the censure removed from Northern, it was transferred to the Board of Regents along with a censure against SDSU. Our aim in shaping the language was to prevent any such incidents from occuring again.
As the statement stands, it guarantees professors' right to study, discuss, investigate, teach, and publish. It guarantees the right to perform professional duties and to present controversial points of view free from reprisal. It is important to note that these guarantees of academic freedom are tied to professors' professional duties.
When professors give personal opinions as private citizens, a set of cautionary statements applies. The statement acknowledges their right to speak as citizens free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their positions as professors impose special obligations. It specifies that they must be accurate, exercise restraint, show respect for the opinions of others, and make clear that they are speaking only for themselves. The statement does not specify when statements are considered to be made in disregard of those special obligations and what action can ensue.
The statement carefully protects professors in their professional capacities. That does not mean that they are totally exempt from censure and discipline. If a professor in a professional capacity uses the right of free speech to defame a person, he is fully liable for damages and disciplinary action they may ensue. Professors can be as petty, peevish, and treacherous as other people at times. When they regard colleagues as competitive rivals, they are often tempted to disparage the work, the character, and motives of their perceived rivals. The generation, refinement, and transmission of knowledge requires that professors engage in critical debates and professional judgments of each other's work, and critical debates must follow rigorous protocols that keep the focus on information and reasoning. When professors engage in personal back-stabbing, slandering, and the fabricating professional charges against other professors, the academic process breaks down and the institution and the profession fails.
Recently in a neighboring institution, a professor was hired to be chair of a department. He found a totally dysfunctional department, and found that it was bogged down by a faction that engaged in malicious gossip against other members of the department. Jealousy, rancor, and vicious back-biting were rampant. The new chair had been given orders by his university president to find out what the difficulty was and to correct it. One professor came into the new chair's office and gave what purported to be a account of the incompetence and misdeeds of the professor's colleagues. The new chair stunned her. He asked her to prepare documentation of these charges against others so that he could proceed with a plan to upgrade the department. The charges she wrote up turned out to be specious, but some were provably false and professionally slanderous. This professor, although tenured, was subjected to discipline under just cause. A hearing board found that she violated the law-enforced right of colleagues not to be defamed and that she had fabricated accusations that were disproven. In her endeavors to promote her own status by undermining others, her work was found to be incompetent, slovenly, and dishonest. She was given the opportunity to resign or face formal termination proceedings. She resigned.
Two other members of that department were found to have participated with her in maligning other faculty members. They, too, chose to leave rather than be dismissed. With three new professors, the department regained a reputation for diligence and good work that it had lost when the back-biting was taking place.
Institutions are charged with managing themselves in ways that meet professional standards and their missions. Professors who bring discredit to universities or disrupt their academic programs can be disciplined. Free speech cannot be used to cover gross negligence of duty, gross incompetence, dishonesty, or misuse of university resources.
Professors are not exempt from the standards of competence and integrity when they speak as citizens. The statement that protects their freedom of speech reminds them of the special obligations they have and the responsibilities entailed. The public judges their profession and their institutions by what they say and the way they say it. When professors use their positions to indulge pesonal agendas or conduct vendettas against individuals, they severely damage the credibility of their professions and institutions as instruments of learning and benign purpose.
When Prof. Jon Lauck of the History Dept. at SDSU blogged during 2004 primarily against Tom Daschle, his activities raised many questions about whether he compromised the integrity of his office and whether he misused his position and the resources provided him. Campaign finance reports showed that he was paid by the John Thune campaign and that his activities were in conflict with his faculty duties. In his blogging activities, he was acting as a paid character assassin. Questions were raised about whether his paid job conflicted with his assigned faculty duties and were in violation of his contractual obligations and whether he was using state facilities to carry out his campaign activities. In addition, the nature of his personal attacks against Tom Daschle showed little regard for the accuracy of information, the appropriate levels of restraint, and the respect for opinions of others required of faculty members. Jon Lauck resigned his university position and became a member of John Thune's senate staff.
Two professors from NSU have continued blogging on the web log that Jon Lauck started. They cause much discussion among rival blogs. There is no question that they have a right to air their opinions without restraint or retaliation. The question raised is whether they use university resources in their activities and whether their posts meet the standards of accuracy, moral restraint, and honesty that professors are obligated to meet. Their propaganda relies heavily upon personal insult, abuse and defamation of people they regard as enemies. Two studies have included examples of statements from this blog which academic colleagues and officers could challenge for academic review if they were made as professional statements by the bloggers in their roles of professors.
The rules of academic freedom give strenuous protection to professors, but they also require that professors use freedom of speech in the quest and examination of knowledge, not for political and personal vendettas, especially when statements are uttered with a large presence of malice. Institutions may not restrain or retaliate against professors for the exercise of free speech, but they take corrective measures when that speech reflects upon the integrity of the institution and when it violates the rights of other people not to be defamed.
Public figures like Tom Daschle cannot seek redress for defamatory statements made against them. A law suit is out of the question. But professors who operate under the privilege of academic freedom have the obligation not to use that privilege to violate rights and damage other people. Institutions and systems have the obligation and right to protect their reputations for probity and honest exercise of free speech in the context of academic purpose.
As for using state property for personal purpose, there are many rules against it. The NSU faculty handbook stresses that property may not be used for the production of private income or for private benefit. However, faculty have great latitude in the use of campus resources in order to enable them to do research and service for their communities within the following policy:"Professional employees may not use for any purpose unrelated to the discharge of official duties supplies, equipment or staff provided by virtue of or in the course of their employment by the Board [of Regents]."
The Board of Regents have very specific policies limiting the use of computer networks in their rules for the use of Information Technology. "IT systems may be used only for their authorized purposes--that is to support the regents, education, administrative and other functions of the BOR."
The policies contain a section on specific proscription of IT use: "Use that is inconsistent with the BOR mission."
Blogging by professors raises many questions. It is the job of their department heads, their deans, and their campus officers to assure the public that they are following the rules and are operating within the limits of valid academic practice.