Kansas legislators push for regulations on college employees’ political speech

KANSAS — When Kansas state representatives met Wednesday to discuss a new education bill, they weren’t trying to create a new law. They met to send a message to the state’s college professors.

The Committee on Education held a hearing Wednesday to discuss a bill to prohibit college employees from including their job titles on columns they wrote about state politics for newspapers.

Mentioning the affiliation might confuse readers, some of whom could believe the professors’ speech represents that of the university, said Rep. Ron Highland, a Republican.

The Committee on Education won’t try to pass the bill, Highland said, adding that the bill was only written to start a conversation. Instead, they’ll approach the Kansas Board of Regents and request a policy change.

Some of the state’s professors have publicly decried the legislation, insisting it’s an attack on their freedom of speech. Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said he believes state legislators drafted the bill to intimidate critics within the academic community.

“This bill is very possibly a reaction to anybody questioning or opening up for discussion the actions of legislators,” he said. “But the country was founded on the idea of people being able to question and open up for discussion the leaders.”

A murky background

The legislation, introduced on Feb. 4, would require colleges to adopt a policy prohibiting employees who write political newspaper opinion columns from including their “official title.”

The bill would not allow colleges to opt out of writing a policy, but would not require colleges to penalize faculty and staff for submitting political columns, as long as they did not disclose their academic affiliation. The bill does not address how officials should react if newspapers print professors’ credentials without their knowledge.

The bill was introduced and sponsored by the Standing Committee on Local Government, rather than by an individual lawmaker. Representatives have shied away from discussing the legislation’s origin.

When the bill was introduced, Committee on Local Government chair Rep. Steve Huebert said

Rep. Virgil Peck was responsible for it, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal. Peck initially denied having introduced the bill, but eventually conceded he must have just forgotten.

On Wednesday, while testifying in support of the bill, Peck vehemently denied requesting it, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

“I want it to be known publicly, for any fruitcake that may want to write something about me, I did not author the bill,” Peck said during the hearing. “I did not ask for the bill to be written.”

The bill is a response to a group of professors circulating political writing “bashing a candidate,” Highland said, adding that “two or three representatives” drafted the legislation because the professors’ opinions might be mistakenly associated with the university.

Highland declined to name the legislators or the professors.

“In a roundabout way, they’re claiming their university believes this as well,” he said. “What we’re trying to get the universities to do is to put a policy in place where, if they do something like that, to claim that they don’t represent the university.”

Although no colleges expressed a need for the bill, some legislators and citizens had, Highland said, adding that some readers might find it difficult to distinguish college employees’ opinions with those of their institutions, potentially putting colleges in a sticky situation.

“The universities should actually be the ones more alarmed at this than we are, because that puts them in kind of a precarious position in saying that we either go along with this or we don’t,” Highland said.

Media and academics alike have questioned the constitutionality of a bill, arguing it would limit professors’ freedom of speech, but Highland said the bill is “not a constitutional issue.”

Insight Kansas

In March 2011, Peck made headlines when he said illegal immigrants should be shot like feral hogs during an appropriations committee meeting. He later said the comment was meant as a joke.

Now, a group of political science professors believe they are in his sights.

Several Kansas newspapers have speculated the legislation is aimed at Insight Kansas, a group of political science professors whose columns on state politics are syndicated in papers throughout the state.

Beatty, a former Insight Kansas contributor, wrote a column for condemning Peck’s feral hog remark and another discussing Peck’s apology, which Beatty said he found insincere. He said the columns, which ran in about 15 newspapers, may have been a factor in the committee’s decision to introduce the bill.

The bill violates professors’ First Amendment rights, Beatty said, threatening their ability to initiate discussion on government decisions and policies.

“I keep coming back to it as a way to at the very least de-legitimize criticism of elected leaders, which I don’t think is what this country is based on,” he said.

Washburn University professor and Insight Kansas contributor Mark Peterson responded to the legislation with a column published in several Kansas newspapers last weekend. Although legislators haven’t provided a detailed reason for drafting the bill, Peterson said he believes the language is too specific to be directed at anyone else but Insight Kansas.

“There isn’t any other group of college professors in the state of Kansas who consistently write opinion columns on Kansas politics,” he said.

He said he took a tongue-in-cheek tone when writing the column, questioning why, during a legislative session when lawmakers must wrangle with issues like “the fiscal crisis facing the state, the lack of significant population growth and job opportunities, the perilous state of the Ogallala Aquifer, the unmet needs of the state’s medically underserved population,” they would choose to focus on this particular issue.

“I point out that it’s nice that folks read us, and apparently we have enough of an impact that they actually take the trouble to craft a piece of legislation that’s aimed straight at us,” Peterson said.

Peterson and Beatty said Insight Kansas’ columns are intended to spark discussion, and while they criticize some government actions, they also highlight ones they agree with.

Both professors said they often choose not to attach their university affiliation to their Insight Kansas columns, instead citing other credentials.

“We’ve never made it a big part of what we do to point out that we work for Washburn,” Peterson said. “That’s been purely consensual, but I imagine if this thing passes, we’ll probably change our attitude on that.”

A trend in Kansas?

If the Board of Regents chooses to honor the legislature’s request, the new policy will follow a 2013 social media policy to restrict faculty members’ online speech.

The social media policy, proposed in December 2013, allows administrators to fire employees over social media posts deemed “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”

The policy came in response to University of Kansas professor David Guth’s tweet directed at the National Rifle Association following the September 2013 shootings that left 13 dead at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

“blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters,” Guth’s tweet said.

Guth apologized and was placed on academic leave following backlash over his post.

In spring 2014, a faculty Social Media Workgroup comprised of 13 Kansas professors, suggested revisions to the policy, arguing it was too restrictive and did little to protect faculty free speech.

Max McCoy, a journalism professor at Emporia State University who served on the Workgroup, said that although the Board of Regents updated the policy to include some of the group’s suggested language about First Amendment protections and academic freedom, the heart of the policy remained unchanged: colleges can still discipline, or even fire, employees for social media posts.

McCoy said he believes suppressing professors’ speech is becoming a trend in the state.

“What’s disturbing about the social media policy is that it was the board criminalizing free speech,” McCoy said. “And now we have this bill that’s come out of committee that, if it’s passed, would actually criminalize free speech.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 785-5451.