In Defense of David Guth

What happened at Kansas University this week completely disgusted me, and everyone who believes in academic freedom, or any kind of freedom, should agree.

Professor David Guth tweeted in response to one of the gun-related mass shootings this week: “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, that wasn’t what disgusted me. Guth is right. Wishing that the NRA leaders might change their unrelenting opposition to gun control if their children (instead of other people’s children) had died in gun attacks might be naïve, but there’s nothing offensive about it. And there’s absolutely nothing deserving of punishment.

Wishing death upon someone might be cruel and insensitive, but it’s not illegal or punishable speech. And that’s not what Guth did. In this case, Guth wasn’t wishing death upon any specific person; he was asking the NRA to try to imagine how they would feel if their children died in gun attacks.

But the fact that I agree with Guth’s viewpoint makes absolutely no difference in my desire to defend his freedom of speech (or tweets). Imagine if a professor who is member of the NRA, in arguing for concealed carry laws, had told gun control advocates, “next time there’s a mass shooting, let your children be the unarmed people who are shot.” I might disagree with the NRA on this point. But I would never argue for that professor to be punished.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the right-wing in America, who launched a crusade to have Guth fired. Unfortunately, Kansas University administrators have now placed Guth on administrative leave and are going to investigate him for the thoughtcrime of daring to criticize the NRA in a conservative state.

State Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, who is a high school teacher, declared: “As long as Professor Guth remains employed by the University of Kansas I will no longer recommend the university as an institution worthy of attendance by any of my students nor, as a state senator, will I support any budget proposals or recommendations for the University of Kansas.”

What kind of moron wants to cut off all funding and tells students to boycott an entire university because he doesn’t like one tweet by one professor? Now, just because I think Smith is an idiot and a scumbag, I don’t believe he should be fired from his job, I don’t believe that students should be warned against attending the school where he teaches, and I don’t believe that the government should cut off funding to that school.

State Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said, “Any attempt to continue employing this individual as an educational leader is offensive to taxpayers.” Personally, I think slimy politicians who want to violate the First Amendment are offensive to taxpayers.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, declared that Guth needed to be removed from KU’s faculty “immediately” and added, “Had he tweeted against a liberal advocacy group, a protected class, there is no question in my mind, that he would be removed.” I have no question in my mind that Bruce is wrong. Suppose after a terrorist attack, some right-wing professor blames the ACLU for defending the rights of potential terrorists and preventing the terrorist from being stopped, and then wishes that the children of ACLU leaders had died in the attack so that they might change their beliefs. I think such a professor might be criticized by many people, but I am certain that neither the ACLU nor Terry Bruce would demand that professor’s dismissal. The only hypocrisy I can see here is on the right.

Kansas State Rifle Association President Patricia Stoneking accused Guth of inciting violence, and said that her group “will do everything possible to see to the removal of this man. He should be fired immediately.”

Here’s an interesting irony: On June 3, 2013, Stoneking posted a message on the Facebook page of a right-wing survivalist militia group, the Kansas Frontiersmen. After Frontiersmen member James R. Miller Jr. posted a message on facebook denouncing the Moderate Party and fantasizing about “punching them in the throat and kicking there (sic) balls in until they can taste them,” Stoneking responded to the message by posting the home address of the Moderate Party’s co-chair, Aaron Estabrook. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Facebook page also included “a photo shared by Miller of a statue of the mythological hero Perseus holding Medusa’s severed head to which had been added the text: ‘All hail Vox Imtimidatus, slayer of liberels (sic), no matter how cleverly they hide among us.’” What Stoneking did was far closer to inciting violence than even the worst interpretation of Guth’s tweet. She provided the home address of someone in response to a message offering direct threats of physical violence. Yet, Stoneking is the leader of one of the most powerful organizations in Kansas, someone Kansas politicians would never dare to criticize, while Guth faces an outpouring of threats (to his life and his career) for daring to criticize an organization with so much blood on its hands.

In response to the Guth controversy, the KU Board of Regents did not defend academic freedom but instead declared, “The Board of Regents expresses its disgust and offense at the statement made by David Guth.” This was a gutless and stupid statement. In general, a board of regents has no business evaluating the public comments of anyone on public policy matters, because doing so creates the impression that anyone who expresses such disfavored views may face a penalty. They have the freedom to abuse their responsibilities by making collective statements like this, but it is highly irresponsible.

Worse yet, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announced, “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.” It’s difficult to understand what these “disruptions” might be. If the “disruptions” are the public criticism of Guth, then there is absolutely no justification for removing Guth. If the “disruptions” are violent threats against Guth, then KU officials need to publicly condemn any threats and immediately move to prosecute anyone who makes them. When threats are made, the proper response is not to give into terrorism by suspending a professor, but to provide adequate security, and in the rare case of an overwhelming threat, to continue the teaching of the class online. The fact that KU officials have mentioned no threats of violence suggests that it is the threat to their appropriations that they’re truly concerned about.

The Chancellor’s actions are in direct violation of all Kansas University policies and procedures. The rules for KU faculty clearly protect freedom of expression, ban any discipline for reasons not specified (and mean tweeting isn’t one of them), and prohibit any discipline, including administrative leave, “without notice of the charges against him or her and the opportunity for a hearing….”

The suspension of a professor without any due process is a clear violation of academic freedom on its face. When a suspension is done in submission to demands by politicians for the firing of a controversial professor, then it is doubly suspect. When the suspension has no reasonable justification, then it has no legitimacy. It is absolutely clear that Guth threatened no one and presents no threat to anyone. Kansas University needs to immediately reverse his suspension, instead of sacrificing academic freedom on the altar of political expediency.

45 responses

  1. From what tenure entails, it doesn’t appear that “verbal diarrhea” constitutes “just cause”.

    Now that the Professor’s biases are out in the open, students are likely to tailor their work products to match the professor’s ideology rather than develop coherent ideas of their own because the grade is ultimately everything.

    Why put a ton of work into disagreeing with the professor for an A- (3.6) when you can blindly agree for a A (4.0)?

    • To answer your last question, it’s morally wrong to lie and pretend to hold a certain viewpoint, even if it did get you a better grade. However, I don’t see any evidence that professors with “open” biases are more likely to grade unfairly, nor is there evidence I’ve heard of any biased grading by David Guth. If the public expression of bias is considered a problem, then the only solution would be to make all professors shut up about every public issue for the entirety of their lives.

    • That’s just a silly argument. I’m extremely blunt about my politics, and have given very good grades to students who took positions opposite mine; I’ve given bad grades to students who took positions identical to mine. And vice versa.

      What you’re actually saying is that you don’t trust students to be able to think through anything, that all that they can do is follow the leader. Wishful thinking on your part, but quite untrue.

      • I taught for 12 years. When issues came up in class, we discussed them, sometimes in very lively ways. I taught art, not journalism. My students knew where I stand, I knew where they stand. And I NEVER pressured them to believe what I believe. I asked them to explain, justify, bring facts, to support what they believe. I did have conservative professors try to bully me when I was a student. To assume that ALL professors put pressure on their students is stupid.

    • Thanks for your defense of freedom of expression. It is important that Universities reverse this trend of silencing the politically unpopular. For both camps – be it Guth or NRA members or whatever. Silencing faculty is probably never the right answer. Encouraging healthy discourse is.

    • In sorry but that is ridiculous, as a relatively liberal professor at KU, I could care less whether the student agrees with my personal beliefs–I am interested in students developing and articulating their own distinctive beliefs and backing them up appropriately. In fact what you suggest would end up with a lower grade in my class, and most likely Guth’s, as it is nearly impossible for a student to back up an argument effectively if it isn’t their argument (they’d have to cite another). unlike bible college, we expect students to think freely and articulate their unique perspectives. I guess the threat really lies in the fact that the right-wing gun nut argument can’t be backed up by facts that don’t exist!

  2. One needs to understand that too many in the NRA and their supporters only defend Constitutional rights for themselves and are willing to deny them to anyone who disagrees with them. Please note – I did NOT say ALL – any is too many, but it is most of the leadership of NRA at national and many state levels. Perhaps the reason they are afraid of freedom of speech is the same reason they have argued and fought against data on gun deaths in this country – it would give the lie to the arguments they advance against appropriate restrictions on weapons and ammunition.

  3. Freedom of speech yes. Freedom of speech for those who disagree with his speech, yes. Freedom of KU to keep or fire him, yes. But let’s remember the next time Rev. Al Sharpton calls upon his followers to protest, picket, or not purchase a company’s product because of their free speech. Or when the Left calls for the head of Sarah Palin who puts a target on a map that this is also free speech. It cuts both ways. And I assume you would also write your opinion when these things happen to the Right.

    • Everyone should be free to criticize, protest, and picket for a cause, whether you are critical of Sarah Palin, Al Sharpton, David Guth, or the NRA. Since it cuts both ways, I assume you would condemn the many people who call for a boycott of Al Sharpton and MSNBC. When you say, “Freedom of KU to keep or fire him,” I have to disagree. Academic freedom means the freedom of individuals to speak, not the freedom of institutions to fire controversial professors. The kind of political influence being used to pressure KU is truly alarming, and certainly very different than the leftists who criticize or even urge private boycotts.

      • You are incorrect, John. Boycotts, calling for resignations or firing, are all part of the freedom we have in America. “Academic freedom” involves what the professor does in the classroom. This was his personal twitter account. The school rightly found his personal views disturbing and warranted an investigation. Think about how people who have “gone off the deep end” are scrutinized, their social media combed through for hints of what may have set them off… in David Guth’s case, that tweet would be considered a HUGE sign. Mental illness can take many forms, and I commend the college for going through the investigative process to make sure we don’t have a psycho on our hands. You can never be too sure… the school may have just saved lives.

      • Rick, legally anyone is free to engage in a boycott or call for firing, and I’m free to criticize it as a threat to academic freedom. Obviously, academic freedom is not limited to classroom speech. If the legislature, for example, decided to fire everyone at a public university who voted in a Democratic primary, this would be a clear violation of academic freedom even though it had nothing to do with the classroom.

        As for this crazy argument that David Guth’s tweet indicates mental illness, it simply has no substance. Obviously, Guth’s tweet was not a threat of physical violence. If KU had any other evidence he was a threat, then they could investigate that. But they can’t suspend someone for controversial statements, and you can’t use the occasional violence on campus as an excuse for silencing political statements.

      • I appreciate the detail, Aaron. I’m sure the University will find, in their investigation, that they may not dismiss Guth based on Academic Freedom, but there may be other reasons to discipline, specifically the idea that what he does on his personal time, in our current world of social media, could be disruptive or dangerous to his students, himself, or the campus. I applaud the University for basically putting him in a “time out” while they figure things out, and let everything cool down.

      • Again, John, no one has been silenced. We are talking about someone being accountable to their job for their words, when they can be directly associated with that job. Investigating the matter is a valid response by the University, and he seemingly personally decided to shut off his Twitter account. He still maintains a blog, and he can write an op-ed tomorrow, there’s not freedom of speech issue here, at all. None.

      • John, do you view the political influence being used to pressure KU as much different than the political influence that Chicago, Boston and San Francisco brought down on their cities in opposition to Chick Fil A, back in the day? http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/with-chick-fil-a-fight-progressive-mayors-get-their-ground-zero-mosque-moment/2012/07/31/gJQAEqTiLX_blog.html Political influence has been used quite a bit to get points across, hasn’t it?

    • This isn’t about Freedom Of Speech, Kirsten. I think you have Freedom of Speech confused with Freedom of Stupidity. People can (and will) say whatever they want, and they accept the consequences of their remarks. If he had the government over his shoulder before he tweeted, and they stopped him from tweeting, THEN Freedom Of Speech would be in effect. Otherwise… who silenced him? He can go on twitter and type whatever he wants. He can post an op-ed in the newspaper tomorrow. Oh, BTW, he also has a blog he’s been keeping for many years. I read a lot of it. He’s actually a Center-Right leaning American who worked for Republican politics in his past. He just made some stupid comments on Twitter and is getting hammered for it. We all have people we are accountable to. Our words can come back to bite us, embarrass our employer, or potentially disrupt or endanger lives. His were held accountable, rightly so. Welcome to America, Kirsten! :)

      • Actually, it is about Freedom of Expression. KU is a state institution, and governments do not have rights (except insofar as state governments have some rights with respect to the federal government); people do. Hence, the First Amendment restricts KU’s power to censor expression or punish people for expressing their views. Moreover, KU probably has policies and procedures that it is violating by disciplining Guth. Finally, if Guth has tenure, there is probably a contract between him and KU that protects him. And since the Constitution explicitly states that “No State shall … pass any … Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts”, I don’t think that KU has any defense for its actions.

    • Well, there’s a productive contribution to the discussion. It would be easier if all us lefties were dead, wouldn’t it?

      If today’s average right-winger actually believed in any meaningful conception of “freedom,” we wouldn’t be talking about David Guth at all. What he did is exactly the same thing as you, Bruce, just did: made a ridiculously offensive statement on the internet. I’m sure you’d go to the mat to defend your right to say it, but not his. Nice double-standard.

      • You are wrong, Seth. Every conservative I know would go to the mat to defend David Guth’s right to say what he said. This is America, and that’s what we do. I also defend the right of the famous Muslim “You Tube” video that supposedly sparked Benghazi. I’m ashamed that my President didn’t defend that person’s freedoms, tho. But I digress… David Guth STILL has the right to say whatever he wants. And the University has to right to protect themselves, their students, and their campus in their investigation. This isn’t a free speech issue, at all.

  4. It frustrates me when sides defend their own with the free speech argument but call for firings when other views disagree with theirs. Would you be so quick to defend this professor if he were a Republican supporting the NRA stating the same thing about gun control advocates? Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt it.

    • James, the evidence is otherwise: Most of us on the left DO defend freedom of speech even when we disagree. Few of us agree with Ward Churchill on much of anything, for example, but most of us were extremely uncomfortable with his firing. I don’t care much for Herbert Richardson, but he should have his say, too (http://academeblog.org/2013/04/17/who-defines-the-debate/). I could go on, but the point is that we don’t see freedom of speech as applying only to ourselves and our allies–and I doubt you could come up with an example showing otherwise.

      • I don’t think Imus should have been fired… in fact, I never cared whether he was fired or not. But that wasn’t a freedom-of-speech issue, for he was employed by a private company. Universities that are government funded (or that claim adherence to academic freedom) are in a very different position.

      • But this professor chose to make his opinions public the very instant he posted to Twitter. Once that happens, the argument you have regarding his status as a professor for an institution of learning is invalid. You do not make statements like that and not expect some form of consequence.

      • I read the definition and from the letter of the law it looks like it would be correct. That said, the university could always impose a firing based on the violation of the “special obligations” professors have in regards to their academic freedom.

        The bottom line is this: Whether you agree with it or not, public outcry more times than not outweighs people’s right to free speech, especially when publicly funded institutions are concerned.

      • If I were a student in his classroom, I’d be concerned that his personal conduct was going to affect my right to a disruption-free learning environment. Apparently that’s what the Chancellor said when she explained, “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.” So you see, Aaron, the University indeed make the claim that Guth’s tweet was affecting the good of the students.

        If I can assist you further in understanding this incident, or the First Amendment in general, I look forward to your continued interaction.

      • I sincerely doubt that any student is concerned. And I rather suspect that it is the school that is causing disruption (by removing the professor). That’s a lame excuse by the Chancellor, to say the least.

      • It does appear you seem to be a bit disrupted by the school’s actions, Aaron, I’ll give you that. However, they pay the Chancellor for the privilege of looking out for the well being of the students and the general campus in this case. You are welcome to your opinions on the actions of the school in regards to Guth, but… you know what they say about opinions. Ultimately, the Chancellor’s actions will be held to a higher standard, much the same way Guth’s foolish tweet was.

    • He is a Republican. Have you read his blog? I have. This isn’t about free speech. It’s about the choice someone made to say something stupid, and his employer is investigating it for the good of everyone involved. I vigorously defend his right to free speech, and vigorously defend my own right to call for his firing, if I want to. That’s MY free speech. He can and should say anything he wants. And his employer maintains their right to keep the peace at their university for the good of everyone involved.

      • Aaron – I’m not the investigating body of the University, the Provost, etc, but from their own statement, it seems they may define “good” as the well-being of the Professor (the backlash was pretty extreme, you have to admit. It could shake the well-being of the most grounded person), the right of the students to have a classroom environment free from the personal twittering of their Professor, and a campus to maintain a certain level of decorum and even safety. The University is a much better arbiter of what is “good” for them than I am, you should ask them. :)

      • I have never heard of this “right” to be free of Twitter. And please explain where safety is involved here… there is no “threat” to anyone in the tweets.

        And it is not the university making claims here, but you. So I ask you.

      • If I were a student in his classroom, I’d be concerned that his personal conduct was going to affect my right to a disruption-free learning environment. Apparently that’s what the Chancellor said when she explained, “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.” So you see, Aaron, the University indeed make the claim that Guth’s tweet was affecting the good of the students.

        If I can assist you further in understanding this incident, or the First Amendment in general, I look forward to your continued interaction.

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