Crass though it may be, this tweet is free speech

Saturday, October 5, 2013

It’s not just athletes and celebrities that damage their careers with indiscreet tweets.

A University of Kansas journalism professor has blown up his own career with a tweet following the shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

His tweet: “blood is on the hands of the #NRA.  Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”  The tweet was insensitive, disturbing and dumb, and elicited exactly the kind of reaction you would expect.

Kansas legislators are calling for Associate Professor David W. Guth to lose his job.  Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce told the Associated Press, “Wishing death and damnation upon parents and their children is reprehensible and not befitting an employee of such a distinguished university.”

Of course, the rush to fire Guth faces one significant obstacle.  It is precisely the kind of free speech that the First Amendment is intended to protect.

We have a significant problem with gun violence in America and there’s largely a consensus that something needs to be done about that, whether through limits on gun sales or steps to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Anyone who saw Guth’s tweet knows exactly where he stands.

He made a provocative statement on a matter of public policy, one that most Americans would be repelled by.  But the guarantees of the First Amendment were not intended to protect popular speech.  They were intended to prevent punishment of Americans for expressing what the government and others did not want to hear.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the controversy was the reaction of Ann Brill, dean of the journalism school.

In a statement, she said, “While the First Amendment allows anyone to express an opinion, that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others.  That’s vital to civil discourse.”

That’s not the case. The right to express a political opinion is absolute in America.  While there are very narrow exceptions to First Amendment protections, they largely involve speech that is inherently criminal, including distributing child pornography, inciting violence and making a true threat against someone.

This was not a threat.  The professor was not saying that he would harm anyone, and tastelessness is not a crime.

The university has placed Guth on administrative leave, and to his credit, he is comfortable with that, largely because of the threats directed at the campus.

“It is in the best interests and peace of mind of our students that I remove myself from the situation and let cooler heads prevail,” Guth said.

Ensuring academic freedom is critical to the health and vitality of America’s campuses.

Few would defend a crass tweet like this, but our principles must prevail. Free expression and quality education are inextricably linked and our country is stronger for it.

(This column originally appeared in USA TODAY.)

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