The University of Kansas, apparently, ignores First Amendment rights.
David Guth, an associate professor of journalism in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at KU, was placed on indefinite leave Sept. 20 after he tweeted about the Navy yard shooting that took place earlier that month in Washington D.C.
Following the shooting, where former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 Naval officers, Guth tweeted, “#NavyYardShooting. 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.”
While the tweet was, indeed, distasteful, colleges have no right to punish their faculty, staff, or students for exercising their First Amendment rights—namely, freedom of speech—especially not a university that is home to one of the best nationally-ranked college newspapers (University Daily Kansan).
This is not the first time a university has taken punitive action for a professor’s tweets, and, sadly it probably won’t be the last. Certain situations clearly call for reprimand, like when University of New Mexico professor Geoffrey Miller tweeted in June to obese PhD applicants, “if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”
The damage caused to students, as well as the direct violation of the UNM Faculty Handbook, warranted direct and immediate action. Not to mention, hate speech is not protected speech.
Guth’s comment on Twitter, while some would deem it “strongly worded,” merely insinuated that the NRA might take a different stance on gun control had their children been the victims of the shooting. No sane, logical person should interpret his tweet to mean that he legitimately wishes death upon the children of the NRA.
People have the right, justifiably so, to take offense at his words. But Guth’s right to speak his mind is equally justifiable—and protected—under the tenants of the First Amendment.
Guth was fully aware of his rights and responsibilities when he posted his Tweet. While it is the purview of each university to determine when, how, and in what way they take disciplinary action against their faculty and students, it is important for institutions to also remember the message they are sending.
There’s a reason freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. Punishing a professor for exercising his legal freedom tells students that our rights, as well as the Constitution, the “supreme law of the land,” have no meaning. If we can’t count on an institution like KU to uphold the law, what sort of “democracy” are we living in?