The University of Kansas is coming under fire from a free-speech watchdog group for suspending a journalism professor over his controversial tweets about the National Rifle Association.
David Guth, an associate professor of journalism, was put on indefinite administrative
leave on Friday for implying on Twitter that he wished violent harm upon the families of the NRA.
Prof. David Guth
Hours after last week’s Washington Navy Yard rampage, the professor reportedly 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.”
A spokesman for the NRA called Mr. Guth’s remarks “disgusting” hate speech and called for his firing. By the week’s end, the chancellor of the public university had ordered his suspension “in order to prevent disruptions to the learning environment for students.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for free speech on college campuses, came to Mr. Guth’s defense in a letter emailed to the chancellor on Sunday.
“While KU is free to speak out against Guth’s comments, it may not, consistent with its moral and legal obligations under the First Amendment, punish him for expressing his views,” FIRE’s letter said.
The letter goes on to say that the university “risks dramatically chilling the free expression of all members of the KU community by allowing any impression to persist that his speech did not merit the First Amendment’s protection.”
...[Mr. Guth] blamed the NRA for waging “an unrelenting campaign of harassment” against him.
As Law Blog mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court has said that the government may not punish public employees who speak out “as citizens about matters of public concern,” with some exceptions.
“So long as employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively,” the high court ruled in 2006.As much as I think the Guth's comment is offensive, even idiotic, it is clearly protected speech under the First Amendment given its political nature. A government entity, which the University of Kansas is, cannot suspend or fire an employee for speech protected by the First Amendment. That would constitute the "chilling" of free speech which is legally the same thing as preventing the speech altogether.
“I don’t think a university could claim that their interest in efficient operations justifies punishing a professor for speech protected by the First Amendment,” Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, told Law Blog.
Public university professors may have additional protections in their labor contracts.
The NRA is being terribly short-sighted by pushing for Guth's termination. What happens next time when it is a pro-gun rights professor fired for tweeting something offensive that the anti-gun nuts find offensive? What is the NRA going to say then?
We are seeing an increasingly number of attacks on free speech. Our right to free speech does not depend on the speech being something most people agree with. We ought to zealously defend that principle because it is a principle that protects us all.