U. of Kansas Faculty, Staff Declare Support for Suspended Professor’s First Amendment Rights

By October 3, 2013

As FIRE’s Peter Bonilla reported yesterday, 13 faculty members of the University of Kansas (KU) journalism department released a disappointing statement supporting the university’s suspension of journalism professor David Guth after he posted a controversial statement on Twitter regarding the National Rifle Association and September’s Navy Yard shootings. Thankfully, more than 100 current and former KU staff and faculty members have recognized the importance of freedom of expression and have signed on to a declaration of support for Guth’s First Amendment rights. The statement reads:

As members of the faculty and staff of the University of Kansas, the undersigned individuals strongly support the freedoms of expression specified in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Whatever one may think of Professor David Guth’s recent comments, we support his right to express his ideas, just as we support the rights of others to express their own opinions about his comments. Promoting freedom of expression should be a core value of any university.

It is encouraging that these staff and faculty members have demonstrated an understanding of First Amendment principles.

According to the Lawrence Journal-World, KU Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Tim Caboni has said that KU is forming a committee in order to investigate the situation but that there is no timeline for when that investigation will be completed. Meanwhile, Guth remains removed from his classes indefinitely, despite KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s claim that KU’s actions were meant to “avoid further disruption of the learning environment.” It seems to me that “disruption of the learning environment” might be better avoided by allowing a professor to keep teaching since he poses no demonstrated danger to students and there are no claims that he was failing to perform his job duties.

Furthering the potential for univerity-caused disruption is the fact that some members of the State Senate have said that unless Guth is fired, they will not vote for KU’s budget. Former history professor Bill Tuttle explained to the Lawrence Journal-World that legislators have used this maneuver before. In 2003, an investigation by KU revealed no support for a legislator’s claims that a professor had sexually harassed female students, and the legislature’s subsequent attempts to cut funding to KU were halted only by then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius’ veto. As FIRE has pointed out before, legislative efforts to curtail speech by cutting funding to schools undermine the very purpose of universities and must be strongly opposed.

As the faculty and staff statement quoted above suggests, the best answer to speech with which you disagree is more speech, and the First Amendment protects individuals who want to criticize Guth’s message. But holding school funding hostage, interrupting classes, and suspending a professor are not appropriate responses to an out-of-class and constitutionally protected remark. KU administrators must follow these scores of staff and faculty in publicly acknowledging that Guth’s speech is constitutionally protected, so that student and faculty speech will not be chilled in the future. That would be, as Gray-Little says, “in the best interests of students.”

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