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.