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On Professor's Suspension at KU, Journalism Faculty Get Free Speech Wrong, Anthropology Faculty Get It Right

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Recently, FIRE’s Will Creeley took to The Huffington Post  to explain why the University of Kansas significantly erred in suspending journalism professor David Guth, who became a lightning rod of controversy following a controversial tweet in the aftermath of September’s Navy Yard shootings. FIRE wrote to KU on September 22; KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little released a statement attempting to mollify the situation. While Gray-Little clarified that the suspension was “not because of the nature of the professor’s comments,” she nonetheless justified it by stating that it was imposed “to avoid further disruption of the learning environment.

As Will pointed out, Gray-Little provided those looking to banish controversial professors from the academy a useful how-to guide:

By conditioning the university's response to controversial but protected speech on the basis of listeners' reaction, Gray-Little is sanctioning what's known in First Amendment jurisprudence as the "heckler's veto." She's empowering those who disagree with a speaker to determine if his or her message may be heard on campus. Don't like what someone has to say? Simply threaten to act violently or otherwise "disrupt the learning environment," and the university will quickly censor the speech in question. The university's explanation provides would-be censors with a road map for how to shut down speakers in the future.

Gray-Little, however, is by no means the only KU figure to speak out on the controversy. At least two faculty groups have made statements of their own. One of them is a group of tenured faculty in KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where Guth is a faculty member. While the journalism faculty pay homage to free speech, they also very disappointingly accept KU’s “disruption” rationale, content to remove Guth from the classroom rather than ensure he is given more protection to go about his teaching duties without interference. 

As tenured members of the faculty of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, the undersigned individuals strongly support the freedoms of expression specified in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. We do not agree with our colleague David Guth’s recent comments, but 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 has always been a core value of our school.

Another core value of our school has always been to provide a productive learning environment for our students. This includes the importance of conducting class without concern of disruption. Because of the polarized nature and volume of response to Professor Guth’s comments, we support his decision and the decision of the university administration for Professor Guth to transfer his students and classes to other professors at this time.

[Emphasis added.]

Especially coming from journalism faculty trained in a field reliant on robust First Amendment protections and protections from censors, this is disheartening.

Contrast their words with the statement from 15 members of KU’s anthropology department, including its chair, as reported by the Lawrence Journal-World:

Chairwoman Jane Gibson and 14 more professors signed the statement that said: "Administrative leave imposed by the University of Kansas violates Dr. Guth’s rights and has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

The statement went on: "While we take no position on the content of what he said, David Guth spoke as a private person and exercised his right to free speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Faculty Code of Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct."

That’s much more like it. When a professor is threatened for exercising his First Amendment rights, the solution is not to exile him or her in response. If faculty can’t expect that their universities will protect them in such circumstances, then free speech and academic freedom are in serious danger indeed.

Three cheers for the KU anthropology faculty, and three jeers for the journalism faculty and the KU administration.

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