The University of Kansas Controversy: Defending the Freedom to Tweet

By on September 23, 2013

University of Kansas (KU) Professor David Guth made news last week for the following tweet in the wake of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard: “#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.” Considering the tenor of the statement, outrage predictably ensued. Among the outraged are some members of the Kansas legislature, at least one of whom has plainly stated that he will not “support any budget proposals or recommendations for the University of Kansas” as long as Guth remains employed there. In the meantime, Guth has been suspended from teaching and has (for now) accepted that suspension, citing “abusive email threats I and others have received.” 

When professors, administrators, or universities in general precipitate public controversies, especially over “culture war” issues, it is unfortunately the case that some elected officials will think it appropriate to demand that those who caused the controversy be fired, threatening bad consequences for the institution unless it bows to political pressure. These legislators are wrong; it is not appropriate. FIRE has seen this happen before—for instance, earlier this year at the City University of New York when a dispute arose within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And in 2009 in Maryland, over the campus screening of a pornographic film. And that same year in Oklahoma, over an invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak on campus about evolution.

Nobody should be surprised that legislators, like many others, feel strongly about such issues. And it is perfectly acceptable to criticize Guth for his speech. But for a legislator to threaten the funding of a state college or university because someone on campus is expressing an idea you personally find wrong or offensive ignores the very purpose of a university. As the Supreme Court wrote in the important campus free speech case of Healy v. James (1972),

[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” The college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the “‘marketplace of ideas,’” and we break no new constitutional ground in reaffirming this Nation’s dedication to safeguarding academic freedom. [Internal citations omitted.] 

The key takeaway here should be that a university is intended to be a “marketplace of ideas” where all opinions can be expressed and evaluated. This way, students can gain a truly liberal education—one that is “characterized by challenging encounters with important issues,” as the Association of American Colleges & Universities helpfully puts it. Not coincidentally, that should be the attitude of a free society towards the expression of opinions and ideas. The philosopher John Stuart Mill made this case about as eloquently as anyone has ever made it when he said in his 1859 treatise On Liberty:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It’s unfortunate that KU has not covered itself in glory either. Soon after the controversy erupted, it released a statement “decrying” (KU’s words) Guth’s comments, including statements such as “We expect all members of the university community to engage in civil discourse and not make inflammatory and offensive comments,” and “While the First Amendment allows anyone to express an opinion, that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others.” While KU may criticize Guth’s tweet, it cannot punish him for protected speech or imply that protected speech may serve as the basis for punishment. KU’s statement was delivered before legislators began to make themselves heard on the issue. One is forced to ask: If KU itself cannot be relied upon to defend the free speech of its professors, why should we be surprised when the state’s legislators (who are not higher ed professionals) fail to do so?

FIRE has written to the University of Kansas asking the university to make it clear that Guth will not be punished for his speech. If the University of Kansas wishes to be a marketplace of ideas (and FIRE certainly hopes it does)—a place where students and professors feel free enough to speak that they are not afraid to be wrong or unpopular sometimes—it simply cannot give in to the demands of those in government who wish to deem some expressions of opinion completely off-limits. Legislators should not make that demand of their state’s public universities, even in the face of strong feelings from constituents or strong personal offense. 

FIRE recognizes that that’s not easy. Defending the rights of those you can’t stand is always a difficult assignment. But we can’t have a free society without it.

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