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Faculty in Canada may not need rules for using social media, observers say

Academics say the climate around free speech differs in Canada from the U.S.

By ELIZABETH RAYMER | APR 27 2015

On August 1, 2014, U.S. professor Steven G. Salaita was anticipating starting a new job at the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus in two weeks’ time: a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program, which Dr. Salaita had accepted in writing the previous October. That day, though, he received an emailed letter from the university rescinding the job offer. His appointment was subject to approval by the university’s board of trustees, and the appointment would not be submitted to the board, he was told in a letter from Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois.

Dr. Salaita, a frequent and public critic of Israel and an author of two books about Israel-Palestine, had been tweeting on his personal Twitter account during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip that summer; some of his language was provocative and the university said it received multiple complaints.

Following Dr. Salaita’s firing, academics weighed in on whether it was justified, or whether his academic freedom had been violated. Some scholars threatened to boycott the University of Illinois’s conferences and events if Dr. Salaita was not reinstated. Peter Kirstein, vice-president of the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told the Chicago Tribune it was a question of “academic freedom and due process.”

“He could have been a little more careful in the language he used, but he had the right” to express his opinions,” said Dr. Kirstein, a history professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.

The statement on academic freedom used by Universities Canada (formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) draws a clear distinction between academic freedom, under which faculty members can comment in areas of their expertise, and the broader freedom of speech, which is a right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Salaita case would be considered a free speech issue.

But could such a situation arise in Canada? The climate in the United States is quite different from that north of the border, say some communications experts, so an incident such as this one would be unlikely to lead to the firing of a professor. However, there were mixed responses on whether Canadian universities need rules or guidelines to govern the use of social media by faculty members.

“As far as I know, SFU has no such guidelines for faculty,” said Richard Smith, a professor in Simon Fraser University’s school of communication and publisher of the Canadian Journal of Communication. He said he believed that any Canadian university that had such guidelines would align them with the university’s stance on academic freedom.

“In fact, I would suggest that, in the absence of some specific rationale, there should be no difference between how the university would treat my free speech in social media versus any other sort of media.”

As well, Dr. Smith noted in an email message, “it is in the university’s interest that all members of our community use social media wisely, positively, and effectively. To that end, workshops and other initiatives are probably more important than guidelines. In fact, participation in social media is an increasingly large part of the normal output of a faculty member, especially younger faculty members, and we may someday see the time when such activity could be part of a tenure and promotion file.”

Jared Lenover, who is conference director of Canada’s college and university digital marketing conference, PSEWEB, said that guidelines might be useful if they helped educate faculty on how to use social media.

“We want faculty to be on social media, to be participating and sharing,” said Mr. Lenover, who is also digital marketing officer for the Degroote School of Business at McMaster University, but was speaking in his role as director of PSEWEB. “That’s one of the reasons why a policy that’s prohibitive may be less effective. Policies [as opposed to guidelines] can be chilling.”

If a university did have social media guidelines, he said, it could respond “in a fair and unemotional way” if a controversy were to arise over a social-media post. Then, “you can avoid an emotional and knee-jerk response that can get universities into trouble.” Such a policy “should have buy-in from faculty and staff,” he added.

Peter Chow-White, an associate professor in SFU’s school of communication, said he was “not sure professors necessarily need guidelines. We publish on a regular basis; if we can write articles and books … we probably don’t need to be told how to write a 140-character tweet.

“But social media guidelines are more about public behaviour,” he said, adding that an assumed part of professional practice is not saying things that are inappropriate.

In the United States, professors – Dr. Salaita being an example – may be punished for their political views, said Dr. Chow-White; however, “we’re not seeing this in Canada.” (He cited, as well, the case of Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1990 to 2007, who was fired from his job, some scholars charged, after he wrote an essay describing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. as a consequence of unlawful U.S. policy.)

“I’ve heard of social media guidelines for athletes at universities,” said Dr. Chow-White, “but when you’re in the business of ideas, the way we are, that’s your currency. The benefit you can bring to society is an open exchange of ideas.”

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