Is professor’s #NRA tweet a firing offense or protected speech?

September 29, 2013

A University of Kansas associate professor of journalism is now on indefinite leave for tweeting the following after a gunman killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C.:

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

 

David Guth, who tweeted the above after the Sept. 16 shootings, later said that he was not advocating violence but trying to get NRA officials to look at gun violence through the eyes of the victim and their families, according to this Associated Press story. He said he was trying to stir a public debate about gun control.

But there was strong reaction to the tweet. Furious university officials put him on indefinite administrative leave with pay, and the school’s Board of Regents issued a statement that said in part:

The Board of Regents expresses its disgust and offense at the statement made by David Guth. The Board also notes that these views in no way represent the views of the university or the Board of Regents. The Board wishes to reiterate the statement made by Dean Ann Brill when she said 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.’…

Some legislators in Kansas want Guth fired, and a few said they would not vote to fund the university if he remains there as a professor.

There were some voices defending Guth’s right to make the remarks, though not the remarks themselves; the Lawrence Journal-World reported that professors from the university’s anthropology department issued a statement saying in part:

Administrative leave imposed by the University of Kansas violates Dr. Guth’s rights and has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

 

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.

But it is unclear whether the tweet was protected speech under the Constitution and whether employers can punish employees for postings on social media that is not done on official website or other platform. The Associated Press quoted Gary Brunk, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, as saying that Guth’s tweet is constitutionally protected.

It’s one thing to do something that’s a clear threat to another person, but he just expressed an opinion.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · September 27, 2013