Saturday, November 16, 2019

#UBCBoG Proposed Anti Social Media Rules

UPDATE: as of November 22, 2019.   Following a thorough discussion the governance committee voted 7 to 1 to reject the proposed revisions of the meeting rules. Then a new motion was put and passed in which the decision was made to have all open meetings of the board (including committee meetings) recorded and broadcast going forward and, at the next meeting of the governance committee to receive a set of guidelines on best practices for social media use. Interventions from student and staff governors, along with Board Chair M. Korenberg, were instrumental in deciding against a total ban of social media by governors in open meetings.

UPDATE: as of November 21, 2019. CBC story on UBC's lack of transparency focussed on social media & recording bans.


On the agenda of the November 22nd Governance Committee meeting is an item on rules for Board and Committee meetings. The proposed changes include a number of minor housekeeping and clarification items. However, there are two fairly major changes being made. There are two sets of rules, but the changes are essentially the same in both, so for this post I am only citing the rule changes for Board meetings.

The first is an outright ban on any recording whatsoever except that controlled by the Board Secretariat.

It is unclear as to why this particular rule has been inserted. I had not been aware of any issues regarding photography at the meeting. I wonder if this extends to screen captures of the webcast? The rule seems to imply no recording by people present at the meeting and is silent on whether those watching online could record the webstream in any way. But that is merely splitting hairs - the intent is pretty clear - the Board Authorities wish to control the dissemination of all information from the meeting - control the flow, control the message.  This is an inherently anti-democratic move to make it more difficult to ensure transparency and openness. This restricts, no simply meeting participants, but also public media. It restricts the capacity to record and comment on meeting proceedings in real time or to retain images for publication after the fact.

The anti-transparency rule changes do not end there, however. A fairly omnibus restriction directed at governors bans all forms of public communication during board and committee meetings. I quote in full:

The target is public communications during meetings. Part of the explanation I have received gores as follows: the main issue is that live tweeting etc has the impact of making people very anxious about what and how they communicate in meetings. The point of the meeting is the outcome, not what is said in deliberation.  So because live tweeting distracts people and makes them 'anxious' about what they might say, the solution is to shut down any social media engagement from governors during the meeting itself.

This is a variant of the standard reason cited for why boards, corporate leaders, and out of touch politicians claim they need a safe space to speak frankly and freely - i.e. out side of public view. "To avoid public misunderstanding."  It's a retrograde approach that assumes people speak one way in private and another more controlled way in public. We need to merge those two ways of speaking in order to build a better, more transparent, and democratic society. As long as we keep a private voice that we pretend has no bearing on public decisions we retain a fundamental flaw in our governance processes. We remain locked in a situation in which the underlying intent of speech acts can never be questioned or challenged in public fora.

It would seem to me that if the purpose is in fact to ensure that governors pay attention to the proceedings of the meetings two things need to be considered: What empirical evidence is there to support the claim it is only live tweeting that distracts and what positive effective mechanism (rather than negative sanctions) can be enacted to ensure full engagement of all governors all the time. 

(1)  no empirical evidence has been presented that live-tweeting distracts a governor from participating in the meeting. For example, I would suggest that I speak more often at meetings than do most governors. Unless I am mistaken I seem to be able to follow the proceedings, offer comment, criticism, and suggestions in oral form while attending to other electronic communications.  Allow me to try some humour – perhaps I should be allowed to be distracted? (as an aside, I would note that when I chair meetings I do not engage in any other form of communication aside from what is involved as chair, and would have no issue with prohibiting meeting chairs from texting, tweeting, emailing, or otherwise distracting themselves from the process of chairing).

I am not alone in live posting – I may be more frequent, but the evidence I have in front of me suggests that the engagement level of governors is directly related to the intensity of our engagement on social media. Those who have no presence online rarely say anything in the meetings.  Those of us who have a robust online presence speak more, engage more, and pay (by all accounts) more direct attention both at the meetings and before. In addition, our thinking and discussion is more transparent than those who elect to have no public presence.  So I would at the very least suggest the rationale that motivates this rule change is 'distraction'  is unfounded and ultimately open to mockery.

2) if the issue is whether a governor is being distracted then I would suggest that the prohibition is not broad enough as it should explicitly prohibit all forms of distraction not directly related to the meeting. I have over my term on the board observer passing of notes, texting, emailing, viewing unrelated webpages (in one case sport stats), side conversations, repeated trips out of the room to make phone calls etc . . .. 

Outside the above points I would suggest that on a more fundamental point this violates a faculty member's inherent right of academic freedom notwithstanding one's role as a governor.  As per David Robinson’s recent keynote address on campus I would note that the principles of academic freedom would protect a faculty member and permit one to continue to engage in the exercise of our right even if the conduct rules say we are disallowed from engagement with social media. Banning the exercise of academic freedom by focussing on the mechanism of communication and the timing of communication is, I suggest subterfuge. 

If the goal is to control the message sent from the board, then the mechanisms are already in hand. But honestly, one can’t really regulate everything that is said online about any member of the administration other governors or the university. Unless it violates a law.  I would prefer that some of what is said about me on both public and semi-private social media not be said. Some of it has been quite nasty, rather hurtful, but not at the level of a violation of law.  Does this rule change deal with that?  No it does not. Personally, I would rather not have the Board Secretariat, the University President, or the Board Chair, try to police niceness as there is essentially no effective mechanism to actually do that.

This rule change has it’s roots in the April committee meetings.  I blogged about it, by the way.  You can read the post here:  I won’t rehearse the moment. The point is the earlier discussion has opened the door to the current proposed legalistic ban that goes way beyond the initial complaint in which one governor felt he was misquoted.

If I make a mistake, I correct it. If I cross a line, I own it. I also use the rights and platform that are accorded me. I think that we need fewer rules and more principles – we also need to respect a diversity of practice and engagement. Banning live tweeting is rather like telling a clerk to speak english because one  can’t understand what they are saying. Social media is a new language that some of use speak – I’d suggest learning the language rather than forcing an 'english-only' rule.


For reference here are my suggested amendments to the proposed rule changes.

1.4 Recording of MeetingsNo person other than the Board Secretary will be permitted to use cameras or other recording devices during a Board meeting.  

All persons attending the open session of a Board meeting are expected to behave in a respectful and civil manner. The Chair may remove any person in attendance due to improper conduct. The practice of “live-tweeting”, “live-posting” or using other forms of social media or other communication media during Board meetings interferes with the ability of Governors to be fully engaged during Board meeting and therefore is not permitted. Governors are permitted to express their personal opinions regarding matters discussed during open sessions after the conclusion of the Board meeting. If they choose to do so,

Governors should be clear that they are expressing their personal views and are not speaking on behalf of the Board or the University. The Board Chair is the only authorized spokesperson for the Board and the President is the primary spokesperson for the University.

1 comment:

  1. In British Columbia, I doubt this is even illegal---you are not to make recordings in court rooms nor in the legislative assembly without a press pass---I guess the question is whether they will then be issuing press passes.

    I think if they refuse, that violates the Charter's right to freedom of expression, its unreasonable that a journalist cannot make an audio recording to verify written notes---they can't just take a recording and transcribe it (well...) but it is certainly reasonable and proper to take a record to verify one's notes.

    As for members of the Board being told that they cannot tweet, this is such an obvious violation of their right to freedom of expression. The Charter applies to the individual board members, if they wish to tweet and ignore the proceedings, that is their prerogative.