KU case shows how backlash from professors’ remarks can inflame politicians

September 19, 2013

by Brad Cooper

One professor compared terror victims to Nazis. Another suggested the feds toppled the twin towers. A third accused Republicans of raping the country.

And the most recent eyebrow-raiser from an ivory tower: The children of gun rights advocates deserve to be taken out in the next mass shooting.

The same colleges and universities whose scholars grab unfriendly headlines must look for money from legislatures that often find their views not just provocative, but offensive.

That’s exacerbated by campuses perceived to lean left that must seek appropriations from state legislatures that increasingly tilt to the right.

Consider the spot that the University of Kansas finds itself in after a journalism professor’s recent tweet wished violence on the National Rifle Association after the Washington Navy Yard shootings.

“Blood is on the hands of the #NRA,” David Guth tweeted. “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”

The reaction to Guth’s comments was fast and furious, especially from conservative Kansas legislators who want Guth fired and who threaten to oppose funding for the university. KU has put the tenured associate journalism professor on leave.

“The (KU) leadership probably finds itself in a tough spot,” said Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence. “They don’t want the stupid actions of one professor to jeopardize funding – at least that’s what I assume they would be thinking.”

Some people see what’s happening in Kansas as another threat to academic freedom, which generally allows faculty and students to participate in discourse without fear of censorship or retaliation.

They see KU’s response as another sign of colleges and universities getting jumpy about politically charged remarks that could repulse the very legislators who decide how much is spent on higher education.

“I think there is ratcheted-up pressure,” said Martin Snyder, interim executive director of the American Association of University Professors.

Guth is the latest in a line of professors who’ve incited political backlash for their unpopular remarks.

 

· At the University of Colorado, professor Ward Churchill ignited a storm in 2005 for an earlier essay comparing 9/11 victims to Nazis. The Colorado House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning him. The governor wanted him fired.

• At the University of Wisconsin, Kevin Barrett triggered outrage a year later for arguing that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the federal government.

• Early this month, Michigan State University creative writing professor William Penn came under fire when an Internet video showed him ranting in class against Republicans.

Typically, controversy caused by professors tends to reinforce the belief among conservatives that higher education is a refuge for leftists who shut off young minds to conservative ideas.

But not always. Kris Kobach, now the Republican and outspoken conservative Kansas secretary of state, wrote an opinion piece for The Kansas City Star in 1999 arguing lawmaking skills in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere were on the decline. He was on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school at the time.

Led by a Democrat, angry Missouri House members voted to cut $2.6 million from UMKC. The funding was ultimately restored, but Kobach said the move infringed on a professor’s academic freedom.

It’s a familiar pattern. A remark from academia unsettles the sensibilities of the legislators who control state purse strings. Those legislative patrons threaten to yank the money that pays the offending professors.

Such conflicts pop up most often between Republican lawmakers and the campuses they see as dominated by liberalism.

Conservatives have pushed the idea of an academic bill of rights. Recently, the University of Colorado agreed to protect political affiliation from discrimination.

“Academics have said some very intemperate things and sort of created the backlash,” said Donald Downs, an expert in academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin. “The question is: Is that backlash itself over the top or a threat to academic freedom.”

An academic bill of rights, for instance, might encourage students to secretly videotape their instructors to expose supposed bias. Downs said that could stifle classroom discussion.

“The more intellectual diversity you have on campus, the better the education is going to be for students,” he said.

Snyder of the national faculty group said public universities are sensitive to pressures from legislators and other outside patrons, so they’re compelled to respond.

Michigan State, for instance, reacted quickly to the video of Penn telling students that Republicans had “raped” the country, were “cheap” and didn’t want to pay taxes.

School administrators met with Penn, who acknowledged that some of his comments were inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive.

Although some lawmakers voiced concern about the video, a Michigan State spokesman said that had nothing to with the school’s reaction. He said Penn agreed not to teach this semester.

In 2002, Missouri lawmakers voted to cut $100,000 from UMKC because of articles one of its professors published about sexual relations between adults and children.

Lawmakers said professor Harris Mirkin’s writings seemed to defend pedophilia. They said he was using a state university to promote “disgusting views,” although other lawmakers said his writings were misunderstood.

In 2003, Kansas lawmakers took a swing at KU’s budget over a human sexuality course that used videos and pictures some found obscene.

Lawmakers tried to strip $3.1 million from KU should materials used in the class be determined to be obscene. The measure was vetoed by then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the name of academic freedom.

Now, in the wake of Guth’s tweet, some Kansas lawmakers are signaling hostility to upcoming university budget requests.

A local teacher, state Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican from Overland Park, issued a statement saying he wouldn’t recommend his students attend KU nor would he support increased funding for the school’s Lawrence campus.

“What (Guth) did was hate speech,” Smith said. “If the University of Kansas is going to promote hate speech that’s not something that’s within the public policy of the state of Kansas and he doesn’t need to be employed.”

Senate President Susan Wagle thinks other senators will agree with Smith, especially if Guth remains employed at KU.

“Legislators are going to think about (Guth’s) statement and they’re going to question if it’s worthwhile spending taxpayer dollars on an institution that allows that to continue,” said Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

Wagle argues that Guth should have shown better judgment because he is employed by the state and that his tweet reflected poorly on KU.

Along with pressure to penalize Guth comes calls for KU to back a professor’s ability to speak his mind publicly.

Guth, for instance, told The Associated Press that his tweet “got a conversation going – that was exactly what I wanted to do.”

He also described himself as the victim of a campaign by gun rights advocates that unfairly vilified him. He said he had “respected their First Amendment rights and it would be nice if they would respect mine.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote KU’s chancellor, urging the school not to yield to political pressure.

“KU risks dramatically chilling the free expression of all members of the KU community by allowing any impression to persist that (Guth’s) speech did not merit the First Amendment’s protection,” the organization said.

A university spokesman declined comment on the foundation’s letter and added that Guth was put on leave to “ensure there were not continued disruptions to the educational environment in the school.”

While KU’s faculty handbook spells out the principles of academic freedom, it urges instructors to use discretion in speaking out because their profession and the university may be judged by what they say.

University faculty have long been protected by academic freedom to teach, research and publish a wide range of ideas without fearing for their jobs.

But Downs, the Wisconsin professor, said academic freedom is moving into a gray area.

He wrote in a paper that academic freedom has been undercut by schools that have adopted speech codes about what professors can say about gender, religion and sexual orientation – so-called political correctness that tends to annoy conservatives.

Academic freedom, Downs said, was set back by a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 that said the jobs of public employees making statements in their official duties are not covered by the First Amendment. The lower courts, he said, have given schools the authority to limit faculty speech.

“Academic freedom,” he said, “is not being protected across the board.”

View this article at The Kansas City Star.

Schools: University of Kansas Cases: University of Kansas: Anti-NRA Tweet Results in Professor’s Suspension