by Colleen Flaherty
Faculty advocates and free speech experts criticized the University of Kansas Friday after it put a tenured journalism professor on indefinite leave for a controversial tweet he posted in the aftermath of the recent Washington Navy Yard shooting.
David W. Guth wrote: “#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”
No one denied that the associate professor’s remark was in poor taste. Some experts also said Guth’s comment warranted investigation and condemnation by the the university.
But his near-immediate suspension may have violated due process and the professor’s academic freedom, some said.
The university “overreacted,” said Robert O’Neil, former president of and professor of law at the University of Virginia, and author of Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University.
“Even though this is a highly contentious message and certainly does not reflect his academic expertise,” O’Neil said, “this is a situation in which I would hope that [the university would be] more ‘creative’ in fashioning intermediate sanctions.”
Instead of placing the professor on leave, O’Neil said, administrators could have allowed him to keep teaching but removed him from some other, secondary duty, such as any leadership position he held. That — coupled with a university statement “disavowing” itself of the remarks and telling Guth to exercise better judgment in the future — doesn’t violate anyone’s free expression, he said.
In an e-mail Saturday, Guth said he’d received “thinly veiled death threats,” and thousands of other angry, at-times obscene tweets, phone calls and e-mails about his tweet — especially since Thursday, when it was reposted on the conservative websiteCampus Reform.
Consequently, Guth said, “I join KU in the belief that the safety and well-being of our students comes first. It is for this reason that I have agreed to step away from the classroom – to, in essence, begin a planned sabbatical early – to allow some time for cooler heads to prevail.”
In contrast to the reaction to Guth’s tweet, O’Neal noted that a certain kind of “tolerance” was prevalent among universities in the aftermath of 9/11, when a number of professors nationwide offered questionable public commentary but were allowed to keep teaching. Even Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who infamously called 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns” wasn’t fired for those remarks — as many believe, O’Neal said — but rather research misconduct, several years later (although some supporters have claimed that the two factors were related).
In an e-mail, Peter Bonilla, director for the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said Guth’s suspension raises “basic concerns” about his free speech and due process rights.
Furthermore, Bonilla said, “Guth’s comments seem clearly to constitute protected statements of political and personal opinion, which [Kansas] cannot constitutionally investigate or sanction.”
As news of the tweet spread, public pressure built on Kansas to take punitive action.
Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican, said Thursday he was “appalled” by the tweet and called for Guth’s removal, the Associated Press reported.
Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Assocation, said in a news release that the organization would “do everything possible” to see Guth fired.
On Friday, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announced that she was suspending Guth in order to “prevent disruptions to the learning environment for students, the School of Journalism and the university,” pending a review of the “entire situation.”
Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in a separate statement that while the First Amendment allows free expression, “that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others. That’s vital to civil discourse. Professor Guth’s views do not represent our school and we do not advocate violence directed against any group or individuals.”
Guth’s classes will be taught by other faculty members.
A university spokeswoman said the decision to suspend Guth was made without consulting a faculty body, because it was a personnel matter. Chris Steadham, Faculty Senate president and law librarian, did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert Kreiser, an academic freedom expert who recently retired from the American Association of University Professors, said that Guth ordinarily should have been entitled to a hearing before fellow faculty members prior to his removal. But, because Guth “evidently has welcomed his being placed on ‘administrative leave,’” Kreiser said, there’s “no need to afford a faculty member the usual protections of academic due process when he accepts the severe sanction that the administration has imposed on him.”
In an open letter to Kansas sent over the weekend, FIRE said it recognized Guth had accepted his suspension. The university “must not, however, allow any cloud of doubt over the protected nature of Guth’s expression to linger,” it said.
Guth declined to provide fuller context for his tweet. But last Monday, he wrote the following on his personal blog:
“I am angry, frustrated, sad and determined. The news of the senseless slaughter today at Washington’s Navy Yard has me again questioning how we can let this madness continue. Frankly, I don’t care if I am criticized for being too quick to judge, too harsh in my criticism or too strident in my tone. The time has passed for niceties and tact. The blood spilled today is on the hands of the National Rifle Association.”
He continued: “I don’t wish what happened today on anyone. But if it does happen again — and it likely will — may it happen to those misguided miscreants who suggest that today’s death toll at the Navy Yard would have been lower if the employees there were allowed to pack heat.”
In previous media interviews, Guth said he was tweeting as a private citizen, and that his First Amendment rights should be respected. But O’Neil said that’s a fine line for university faculty and administrators to walk.
“It depends on who you are,” he said. But especially for high-profile faculty, “that doesn’t wash.”