We won’t defend what David Guth, a University of Kansas journalism professor, said September 17, the day after a gunman murdered 12 people in Washington, DC’s Navy Yard before killing himself.
Professor Guth’s remarks were repulsive. On his Twitter account, he wrote, “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.”
On Thursday came word that KU, which had put him on immediate administrative leave, assigned him to administrative duties – away from campus – for the rest of this semester. He is to go on a previously scheduled sabbatical next semester. He could return to teaching next fall.
More offensive than Professor Guth’s remarks, however, was and remains the response of legislative leaders.
No sooner had he made his Twitter entry in September than Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita and Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Hutchinson — both Republicans — called for KU to fire Professor Guth. Other conservative lawmakers chimed in and indicated that if he remained a KU employee, they would not support state funding for KU.
In an interview Thursday with the Lawrence Journal-World, state Sen. Bruce said, “This is a sad day for the University of Kansas and the state as a whole… By failing to render stronger sanctions against him for his actions, I fear the Legislature will conclude that the University of Kansas has just given its endorsement to the culture of violence Professor Guth sought to glorify.”
Professor Guth didn’t seek to glorify violence; he was reacting in outrage to it, though he did an abysmal job of it. What’s more, KU wasn’t endorsing any culture of violence - Sen. Bruce and his political allies can’t pretend otherwise.
But Sen. Bruce is partly right. This is a sad day for Kansas.
This is a sad day for Kansas because legislative leaders are contemplating punishing a public university — and by extension its student body and entire faculty — because they’re offended by one professor’s Twitter comments.
It’s a sad day for Kansas because some of this state’s lawmakers think and act as if they have license to dictate how a state university should be run and what their employees can and cannot say.
In a firestorm with no middle ground, our sense is that KU handled things pretty well. After all, the university wasn’t condemned just by conservatives and supporters of the NRA for suggesting its gun advocacy contributed to the Navy Yard massacre. KU also was condemned by advocates of free speech and academic freedom for removing a professor from the classroom because of his words, angry and inflammatory though they were.
Yes, Professor Guth was out of line. But farther out of line are lawmakers who would bring the heavy hand of government down on a university for not firing someone because they demand it.