We have another example of a teacher being disciplined for an act of free speech in his private time. I have previously written about the increasing scrutiny given public school teachers in their use of social media sites. University of Kansas Associate Professor of Journalism David Guth has been placed on administrative leave after posting an anti-NRA tweet following the recent Navy Yard shootings that killed 12 people. Guth tweeted” “blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”
Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little issued the following statement after Guth was placed on administrative leave:
“In order to prevent disruptions to the learning environment for students, the School of Journalism and the university, I have directed Provost Jeffrey Vitter to place Associate Professor Guth on indefinite administrative leave pending a review of the entire situation. Professor Guth’s classes will be taught by other faculty members.”
While the statement is framed in terms of avoidance “disruptions,” it does not appear to be at the request of Guth. Free speech is often limited in the name of maintaining order and avoiding disruptions. Once again, I find the statement of Guth to be repulsive in wishing the death of the children of gun rights supporters. Yet, it was clearly a political statement made outside of the university.
Nevertheless, Kansas State Senator Greg Smith wants Guth to be fired for engaging in free speech. He is further promising to oppose any appropriations for the university. That sounds like threatening students in protest of a tweet deemed threatening to children of NRA members. A curious moral high ground.
Smith, a former law enforcement officer, however may feel such a threat particularly acutely. His website cites the kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder of his daughter, Kelsey, as his motivation to continue in public service. I can certainly understand why Guth’s words would be particularly hurtful to Smith. Yet, threatening an entire academic institution for the views of a single faculty member is excessive and wrong-headed.
Likewise, the Kansas State Rifle Association President Patricia Stoneking has pledged that it “will do everything possible to see to the removal of this man . . . He should be fired immediately. His statements are outrageous!. . . Is this who you want teaching your children? I certainly do not want him teaching mine.” Of course, these are not children but college students who are part of an academic community built on the exchange of different ideas and values.
For his part, Guth is not backing down. He is quoted as saying “I don’t apologize for it because I’m not saying in the tweet that I want anybody harmed, and I expanded on it in my blog.”
He is not getting a lot of public support from Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Brill wrote that “While the First Amendment allows anyone to express an opinion, 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.” The reference to the limits of the first amendment by Brill would seem to encourage those who want Guth disciplined by suggesting that this case might fall within those limits. However, this is an expression of a teacher on a matter of great social and political debate. I do not believe that he actually wanted harm to come to NRA family members. He used injudicious and offensive words to convey his passion. Since some of his students are likely gun rights supporters, it was particularly disturbing. However, he was on a social media site expressing his anger in the aftermath of a great tragedy. I do not see how the “limits” of free speech would allow the discipline of a teacher for such a statement in such a circumstance. Notably, it is Brill’s”limits” point that was quoted by the Regents of the University.
Ironically, Guth specializes in public relations according to his resume. He has a M.A. in Journalism, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (1990) and a B.A. in Radio, Television and Speech, University of Maryland at College Park, 1973.
Do you believe that a professor can or should be disciplined for such a posting on a social media site?