University of Leeds lectures legal scholar over ‘political’ tweets

Experts question ‘draconian’ social media policies after university rebukes academic questioning Theresa May’s policies

August 21, 2014

Source: Getty

Scolded: an academic was asked to remove her Leeds affiliation from remarks

The way in which UK universities manage staff use of social media has been called into question by a scholar reprimanded for perceived inappropriate online activity by her institution.

Experts have also queried the wording of “draconian” university social media policies that stipulate what staff can and cannot do online.

Carole McCartney, reader in law at Northumbria University, told Times Higher Education about her experience while employed by the University of Leeds.

“I was reprimanded for some tweets that I had posted questioning the policies of home secretary Theresa May,” she said. “I received a long email from ‘the Webmaster’ [at Leeds], stating that I couldn’t post political tweets in case someone thought that they represented the views of Leeds University.”

She said that a lengthy email exchange ensued, and that a number of members of staff had backed her stance that it was not possible for academics to do their job without being “political”.

“How on earth [am I] meant to be non-political, especially since I am a legal academic and was writing about May trying to opt out of European Union policing treaties?”

The university eventually backed down, she said, after instructing her to remove the name of the university from her Twitter profile. “I pointed out that anyone with the most basic access to the internet could easily find out who I was using Google,” she said. “It was stupid, and it meant that people at Leeds…were monitoring our tweeting, and I was alarmed by this.”

A spokeswoman for Leeds said that Dr McCartney had been asked to “add a suitable disclaimer” to her Twitter account to make clear that her views were not those of the university but were personal. She added that the university “does not systematically or proactively monitor staff accounts”.

In 2010, Leeds removed a social networking code from its website that warned staff and students that it was unacceptable to criticise the university after the institution received a wave of criticism online.

However, seemingly restrictive policies are still in place at other universities and published online.

Edinburgh Napier University’s guidelines urge staff to “avoid social media communications that…could damage the University’s reputation”, even if it is clear that the tweets do not represent the views of the university.

The University of Kent’s policy states that staff should “inform the Alumni Relations team if they intend to engage with former students online”. This applies, according to the policy, to all staff who are identifiable as working at the university from their social media profiles, but a Kent spokesman said that it was intended only for people wishing to set up a dedicated alumni platform.

David Gauntlett, professor of media and communications and head of the Centre for Social Media Research at the University of Westminster, said that academics in a wide range of fields are likely to make political arguments, and that rules to try to prevent this were “both silly and counterproductive”.

“A university has to be careful about its reputation and public perception, of course, and social media can affect those things in both positive and negative ways. But academics should be able to tweet freely, just as they can speak freely,” he said.

He added that “a bit of lightweight training and advice works better than draconian policies”.

chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (5)

Oh dear, how truly Poppletonian. I look forward to Leeds appearing in Laurie Taylor's column. I'm happy to say that UCL has never tried to censor anything I say even when some people might see it as controversial. Perhaps you should have kept Michael Arthur as VC. I can't see him being so silly.
The idea of my tweets being censored by my employer are absurd. Our head of PR etc (not sure what it's really called) once told me off for assuming she'd never lived in the North. But no other censurious comments whatever on the 1,500 tweets I've written this year. I am also pretty sure my ultimate boss David Latchman has far better things to do with his time than check on my latest rant about ... well whatever it is that @tissington has on its mind on any particular day. For example, at the moment I am annoyed by premier league football club ownership and the quality of service in British seaside resorts. But next week it might be tuition fees, why you should take a holiday, pop music of today or resettlement of ex-forces people. I think it's an important part of my job as an academic to speak out. This distinct from my job as a lecturer (be on time, know my stuff, inform, entertain and be mostly sober) and researcher (find things that will be accepted by my peers as useful extensions of human knowledge) - although I see them as all inextricably linked.
Such policing is going to become increasingly part of the policies and actions of HE employers in a context. 'Brand and reputation management' is becoming more and more prioritised as neoliberal marketization dominates the system. In a competitive marketplace with not enough resources (money and students) to go round, anything which could be deemed to create a negative impression that might undermine or challenge the desired external perception of the utter fabulousness of the institution is going to get clamped down on hard. I am aware of students also being threatened with disciplinary actions for posting comments that criticise aspects of their courses on social media. In my own institution the well-established management culture of threats, bullying and punitive actions against staff is very much at odds with the fluffy PR speak that is pumped out for public consumption. Many staff members are afraid to rock the boat or speak out publicly for fear of retribution and their jobs being put at risk. This trend across the sector is highly toxic but is an inevitable result of the ravages of neoliberal policies. Watch yer backs, folks.
David Colquhoun -> All this happened on Vice Admiral Arthur's watch I'm afraid to say!
Nice choice of photo to accompany this article!

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