In spring of 2021, a donor to TMU’s School of Fashion posted a photograph with Donald Trump on her social media. The post attracted attention from students, faculty, alumni and community members at the School and many raised concerns about the donor’s implied endorsement of the former US President and his political positions and views.
In response to the concerns, particularly by the student body, the faculty at the School of Fashion released a statement on the School’s Instagram account calling on the donor to engage in a dialogue with the School about the impact of Donald Trump’s views and actions on marginalized groups. Within a few hours, the Dean of the Creative School, on behalf of the Administration, contacted the Chair and directed the statement to be removed and subsequently replaced with a statement written by the Administration.
The Administration’s actions prompted a grievance by the TFA in support of academic freedom including the right to criticize the institution and its affiliated individuals/groups, and principles of autonomy and collegial governance. The grievance was rejected by the Administration and referred to arbitration. In September 2022, arbitrator Kevin Burkett issued a consent award directing the Administration to prepare a clear policy on use of social media, with meaningful consultation with the TFA.
In March 2023, the Administration provided the first draft of a social media policy. The TFA met with the Administration several times over the last few months flagging major concerns with the approach and provisions of the policy and providing alternative language for consideration. While some of the TFA’s feedback were received and changes were made to the initial draft of the policy, most of our main concerns remained unresolved. On August 30th, the Administration sent a final communication dismissing TFA’s concerns and noting that they will be moving forward to university-wide consultations. In response, the TFA has made it clear that while we are willing to continue to engage the Administration, in good faith, on the development of the policy and addressing its issues, we reserve the right to refer the matter back to the arbitrator and/or grieve and challenge any application of the policy that may impinge on academic freedom or any other TFA members’ rights or collective agreement provisions. The TFA encourages all members to also raise their concerns with the Administration during the community consultations on this draft policy.
The TFA maintains that the TMU Social Media Policy, as drafted, is based on a set of flawed assumptions and principles incompatible with an academic environment. Below is a summary of TFA’s concerns:
- The policy adopts a corporate mentality. It approaches the topic from an overtly corporate standpoint of “brand protection” and “preserving and enhancing the image” of the university, which is contrary to the purpose of the policy as directed by the arbitrator in the consent award, and at odds with the core purpose of a public university which is creating knowledge, educating, and serving the common good.
- The policy fails to recognize the unique governance structure of the public university, which is wholly different from other public and private institutions, in that it is based on founding principles of academic freedom, tenure and collegial governance. As a result, it actively discourages academic freedom, collegial governance within units, and undermines a unit’s freedom to associate.
- The policy assumes that the public does not have the basic social media literacy to understand the difference between official university accounts, representing the views of the university at large, and all other accounts connected to the university. No reasonable person assumes the views of a single academic unit as the official views of the institution.
- The policy, as drafted, violates Article 11 of the TFA Collective Agreement regarding academic freedom (including freedom from censorship). The new requirements under this draft policy for social media accounts to “protect and enhance the identity and image of the University” and for the content to be consistent with the “University Brand” are completely unreasonable and in violation of faculty’s right to academic freedom including the right to criticize the institution.
- The policy fails to recognize that academic units are covered by the academic freedom provision and their decision-making process is based on existing collegial and democratic processes and structures at the unit level. Faculty already have the right to associate within their academic units and the freedom to speak as a unit through their established democratic and collegial structures. This draft policy wrongly provides University Relations the authority to police the “tone” of what faculty members and their departments post through collegial processes. The policy draft suggests that academic units are accountable to the senior administration and therefore can be controlled by the University Relations office. The TFA opposes this view.
- The policy threatens faculty IP rights. Given that social media accounts are in fact owned by third-party platforms and are not the property of the university, we read the language in the draft policy on account ownership, as the administration’s claim to have ownership over the content of the academic units’ social media accounts. This is of concern with respect to possible infringements on IP rights.
Social media accounts are already subject to university policies, including the DHPP, as well as the principles outlined in the TMU social media guidelines. Further, the academic freedom provision in the Collective Agreement also emphasizes adherence to the law and respect of others’ academic freedom. Thus, the newly added requirements for social media accounts are unnecessary and unreasonable.