I must admit I missed this story when it originally broke, but I follow Slate (a site focused on long form posts) and picked up the story just a few days ago.
Evidently, back in September, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a description of a University of Kansas professor being suspended for a tweet that targeted the NRA following a massed shooting. You might wonder how much trouble you can get into given a limit of 140 characters. Evidently, a good deal. The tweet indicated that “blood was on the hands of the NRA” which probably by itself would not be too objectionable, but then went on to say “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”
The tweet evidently was noticed and likely frequently retweeted and in reaction the Kansas chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, directed KU to place Dr. Guth on leave.
Reading about this action caused me to think back on what I may have said in response to similar events. I did comment on the school shootings, the NRA, and also on the vote of a newly elected North Dakota senator I had supported financially. My comments were in a longer form and more carefully worded. I believe comments that over the top lose any possible effectiveness the sentiments expressed might have. One can express contempt for a policy – the lack of a defensible need for high capacity ammunition magazines or the lack of a response to the need for background checks that address mental illness – without wishing ill on the children of those holding such flawed beliefs or taking such stands in response to political pressure.
Still, private irrational and indefensible comments are everywhere. College professors are actually probably even less inclined to “lose it” and make inappropriate comments than are politicians or titans of public (stock supported) companies. Such comments, however, are inevitable and now with our willingness to share thoughts online more visible and permanent. There are two issues here – who is allowed to express their displeasure and what should be the consequences for an inappropriate comment. In both cases, I am assuming the situations involve comments made as personal opinions and not as a representative of any organization (such as is the case with this post). Dr. Gust did not promote his comment as the position of the University and could not have done so in 140 characters.
It does make you wonder. Does anyone recognize that I am a college prof. when reading my posts or tweets? Does anyone know which institution employs me? Does anyone believe my comments somehow carry the stamp of approval of my employer? Does anyone believe my personal position on important issues should be silenced because I work for the people of North Dakota?
The President of the University of Kansas did eventually respond to the intertwined issues of responsibility, free speech, and academic freedom. The comment from KU President are difficult to interpret (administrator speak), but I think he says that we support different views and believe in academic freedom. I hope so anyway.
This situation generated so much attention because the initial comments were online and because the actions taken were also evaluated online. I keep hoping that online comments give everyone of us an opportunity to comment and engage. Being civil is certainly to be expected, but we all become frustrated when positions we clearly see to be wrong are somehow protected with flawed logic.
Further analysis can be found at the American Center for Civil Liberty site (read the extended discussion).