George Washington University’s provost responded to an online imbroglio Tuesday with an invitation — asking a newspaper columnist who had felt insulted to come for a campus discussion on civil discourse. But the provost also stood by the professor who sparked the spat, defending his academic freedom.

Provost Forrest Maltzman’s tweet quickly went viral, another sign of the fascination online with free speech, political fault lines, power dynamics and bedbugs. Especially the bugs.

It all started when David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, took a jab Monday at his least favorite New York Times columnist. He tweeted that a report about the Times newsroom being infested with bedbugs was a metaphor, and that conservative columnist Bret Stephens was a bedbug.

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No one paid much attention. Except for Stephens, who emailed Karpf, cc’ing his boss, writing that he is often amazed at the things people say about others on Twitter. “I think you’ve set a new standard,” Stephens wrote. “I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face. That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”

Karpf was astonished that Stephens had somehow found the tweet, and that he included the provost in his complaint, seeing it as a clear attempt to get him in trouble. With power comes responsibility, he said. “It is an abuse of his position to be emailing random people and their bosses,” he said. With the clout of his New York Times platform, Karpf said, comes this truth: “People get to make silly jokes about you.”

Silly jokes were made, as people responded Monday and Tuesday. They wrote about bugs and contrarian columnists, pasted Stephens’s face on pictures of bugs and wrote satirical columns.

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Stephens said Tuesday on MSNBC that Karpf’s bedbugs comment was “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable,” and said he had copied the provost on the email not to get Karpf in trouble at work but because “managers should be aware of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world.”

Stephens shut down his Twitter account Tuesday, writing in a final post that the social media platform is “a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity. I sincerely apologize for any part I’ve played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt.”

Some professors’ remarks on social media have ended with them getting fired or reprimanded.

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Karpf’s elicited an invitation.

Karpf said he appreciated the supportive response from Maltzman and hoped to join Stephens onstage for the talk.

Stephens didn’t respond to other questions Tuesday, but did say by email he had seen the provost’s invitation.

“I’ve accepted,” he wrote, “and we will find a date in the fall.”

Tim Elfrink and Morgan Krakow contributed to this report.

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