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What does academic freedom mean in the era of social media?

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The University of Tennessee announced on Tuesday that it would not take action against a professor for a controversial tweet suggesting that drivers hit protesters blocking the road in Charlotte, N.C. 

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The University of Tennessee College of Law will take no disciplinary action against Glenn Reynolds, a professor who last week published a tweet which appeared to urge drivers to hit demonstrators blocking traffic in Charlotte, N.C., the school announced Tuesday. 

"Run them down," Professor Reynolds tweeted last Wednesday in response to a local news station's tweet showing people blocking a highway to protest the death of a black man at the hands of police. Reynolds's post quickly spread across the internet, with many calling for the college to cut ties with the professor. 

But after Reynolds deleted the tweet and issued an apology, in which he explained that he was not condoning violence against protesters but rather meant that "drivers who feel their lives are in danger from a violent mob should not stop their vehicles," the university announced that no disciplinary action would be taken. 

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"The tweet was an exercise of his First Amendment rights," College of Law Dean Melanie D. Wilson wrote in a post on the law school's website Tuesday. "Nevertheless, the tweet offended many members of our community and beyond, and I understand the hurt and frustration they feel." 

Reynolds is also a contributing writer for USA Today, which has suspended his columns for a month

"USA TODAY expects its columnists to provide thoughtful, reasoned contributions to the national conversation, on all platforms," Bill Sternberg, the editorial page editor of the publication, said in a statement to Politico. 

In the case of Reynolds, some Twitter users interpreted the Tweet as advocating violence. But the question of how to respond to a professor's post that is deemed offensive, or even threatening, is one that universities find themselves grappling with increasingly frequently, as institutions navigate where to draw the line on academic freedom in the social media sphere. 

"[Y]et again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement," wrote Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in response to a controversy last year surrounding Saida Grundy, an assistant professor at Boston University.

"In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action," Dr. Cottom wrote. "In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters."

Some professors, such as Reynolds and Dr. Grundy, a sociologist who tweeted that white college-age males were a "problem population," have gotten off with an apology for controversial posts. Others have faced more dramatic consequences: Steven Salaita, for example, a professor who had a job offer revoked by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 after a series of incendiary tweets about Israel. (Dr. Salaita consequently filed a lawsuit against the university and won $600,000, but no admission of wrongdoing.) 

As more academics take to social media to express opinions, sometimes unpopular ones, some institutions have begun to adjust their policies. The Kansas Board of Regents, for example, which governs the state's six public universities, adopted in 2013 new rules calling for the punishment of any faculty or staff member who "impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers" through "improper use of social media." 

But some argue that such rules can be a dangerous restriction to the principles of academic freedom, and that professors should be able to tweet or post any controversial idea without fear of retaliation, with the exception of explicit threats or admissions of discriminatory practices. 

"Professors do not represent an institution when they post on their personal social media. It must always be presumed to be their own views, unless they actively claim to speak for an institution," says John K. Wilson, author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies," in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "Free speech protects offensive speech, too. And social media must be judged by the same standards as any other comments."  

Others say the lines between personal and professional statements are blurrier. The nature of social media makes it impossible to completely separate personal opinions from professional image, says Don Eron, a retired instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and a member of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. 

"I think social media has made the traditional distinctions regarding academic speech – whether the speech was uttered in the professor's capacity as a private citizen, or in the performance of his or her professional duties – irrelevant, as the views expressed through social media can become so well known that one will likely perceive the professor's professional work through the prism of those views," Mr. Eron tells the Monitor in an email. 

Those two personas become even more intertwined if the remarks made on social media are relevant to the professor's field of study, Eron says: "In other words, the views expressed through social media can easily influence the context through which one understands the professor's professional work." 

Many of the questions surrounding professors' use of social media stem from the shifting landscape of college classrooms in an increasingly digital world, says Robert O'Neil, the former president of the University of Virginia.

"The sanctity of the college or university classroom, and of communications that take place in that physical space, have always been at the core of academic freedom," Mr. O'Neil writes in Trusteeship Magazine. "Yet when an instructor creates a home page for a course, and when a growing portion of exchanges between teacher and student occur through email, we need to ask whether such media are an extension of the brick-and-mortar classroom or whether they should invite a completely different analysis. Distinctions between 'on-campus' and 'offcampus' [sic] obviously break down in an electronic environment." 

Despite the breaking-down of these distinctions, Eron believes that the majority of people recognize that when a professor tweets something controversial, he represents himself, not the university he works for. And as the lines continue to grow blurrier, administrations will "have to take the good with the bad."

Professors such as Reynolds "are not robots," and sometimes "will say things that are stupid and embarrassing," Eron says. "But if administrations were to make a practice of disciplining speech that they don't like, then soon enough faculty will stop speaking."

"The cost to these institutions – and to society – if experts were to stop communicating their expertise out of fear of retaliation, is likely to be far greater than the momentary inconvenience to the institution of tolerating opinions that might reflect poorly upon them," he adds.

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