Universities want broader regulation of their communities’ social media

May 22, 2014, 3:18 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Conventional wisdom underscores the importance of being careful about posting those Facebook photos of a night out or a tweet that an employer might find distasteful. News reports about people losing their jobs because of social media are cliché. But up until the last few years, specific regulations have been lax and specific guidelines few and far between.

But what happens when a university explicitly sets out guidelines for your Twitter, Facebook and other online activity? New York University is doing just that, and the act has prompted concern among some faculty members at the elite institution. If accepted in a final round of reviews, this could have wider implications for misuses of social media and other electronic communications both in the workplace and at school.

The policy’s aim, which is based in part on similar guidelines at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, is to promote “awareness within the University Community regarding the benefits and risk (including privacy-related risks) of Electronic Communications.” With a focus on inappropriate uses of social media, the document mentions “conduct that unreasonably and substantially interferes with a person’s academic or work performance, opportunities or benefits, or a person’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being.” Should an NYU community member — including students, full-time, and part-time employees — be found to be misusing electronic communication as outlined above, he or she may be “subject…to disciplinary action,” according to the policy.

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The policy also notes “conduct that disrupts NYU operations or creates a foreseeable risk of doing so,” publishing “unauthorized digital images or video files depicting another to embarrass, socially ridicule, or defame that person” as well as “prohibited electioneering.”

The news from NYU, a privately funded institution, comes in light of the Kansas Board of Regents approving a revised social media policy that curbs what college workers and faculty can post while employed by its public universities. Those who are caught writing online posts deemed less-than-savory can be fired, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

Ted Magder, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication who has chaired the faculty senate, however, said that Kansas’ case and NYU’s forthcoming policy are different. “It’s a classic misreading. Is there a legitimate concern? It would be if we were including a clause that the university of Kansas was introducing.” He added, “There’s no such clause.”

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John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, wrote in an email: “As I understand the criticisms, they are that 1) there wasn’t faculty consultation, and 2) the policy may compromise academic freedom. The problem is, neither of these claims are correct.”

“The policy was actually supported by the committee of the Faculty Senators Council that was charged with reviewing it,” wrote Beckman. “There may be faculty members who disagree with the policy, but to suggest that it was developed without faculty input is baseless.” Beckman added that the first section of the policy “reaffirms academic freedom and free expression.”

“For me, this is about institutional overreach,” said Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of East Asian history and a critic of the new policy. “These very broad categories of constraint are very much open to question.”

Karl wishes the opinions of faculty, students, and staff had been surveyed ahead of the policy being drafted. “I think that a baseline understanding of how people are using [social media] in order to see how we can be regulated — survey work — might gauge some sort of attitudinal process amongst faculty,” she said.

In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Karl was quoted as saying, “It’s characteristic of NYU to be very restrictive about what its faculty can do, rather than approving of what its faculty already does.”

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But while the NYU policy has some professors on edge, others believe students will benefit from the guidelines. Carol Reiss, a professor of biology who has served as the council’s chair in the past, said the policy will be helpful because “students might read [it], and that might tell them that their information isn’t private.”

“In a university, it is important,” she said, “to be able to express oneself, to be able to teach our students and mentor our students. Reiss added that “in no way is academic freedom constrained.”

Faculty senators will next collect input from their schools and divisions and a meeting will be held during the summer. In the fall semester, the faculty council will vote on the revised policy, which already has approval from the administration and students.

Reiss isn’t optimistic about the number of faculty who will give the policy more than a cursory glance. “A fraction of my colleagues will dedicate the time to read it,” she said.

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