by Raizel Liebler & Keidra Chaney
Last year, we wrote an article published in Pace Law Review about how social media usage interacts with employment, institutional “voice” and the rights of individuals to express themselves. In a series of posts, we are sharing edited portions of the article to more fully share our ideas. If you are interested in citing this paper in an academic (or quasi-academic) setting, please use the full published version: Here We Are Now, Entertain Us: Defining the Line Between Personal and Professional Context on Social Media, 35 Pace L. Rev. 398 (2014)
The Next Social Media Battleground
After student-athletes, academia is the next sector where there is a blurred line between the personal and professional use of social media. The Kansas Board of Regents recently revised its university personnel policies making improper use of social media grounds for discipline up to and including termination for both faculty and staff. Social media is defined as “any online tool or service through which virtual communities are created allowing users to publish commentary and other content, including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube” – those that still use email and listservs will be glad to hear the policy likely does not apply to them.
The policy does have a First Amendment saving clause, “recogniz[ing] the First Amendment rights as well as the responsibilities of all employees, including faculty and staff, to speak on matters of public concern as private citizens, if they choose to do so, including through social media.” However, what defines a “private citizen” is not articulated, but rather is based on institutional identity and branding:
The Board supports the responsible use of existing and emerging communications technologies, including social media, to serve the teaching, research, and public service missions of the state universities. These communications technologies are powerful tools for advancing state university missions, but at the same time pose risks of substantial harm to personal reputations and to the efficient operation of the higher education system.
The policy also does not reference how people often include their job title as part of their identity as a common practice within professional circles, including academia, or include references to their alma mater or school of employment through fan participation:
When determining whether a particular use of social media constitutes an improper use, the following shall be considered: academic freedom principles, the employee’s position within the university, whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university, whether the communication was made during the employee’s working hours and whether the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment.
If one was an employee of a university in Kansas, looking at the disciplinary standard above, would one be able to refer to one’s job title within a personal blog, or display their participation as a fan at sporting events, such as wearing team merchandise? Based on this definition, any personal identifier shared online, even casually (i.e. career/place of employment, favorite sports team, participation in a performance or talk) could be grounds for employment termination. Considering that the default of social media cultural norms is the open sharing of personal information to define an individual’s online identity, the law and online culture continue to be at odds.