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Speech in the Balance

By now we all know about the University of Kansas professor, David W. Guth, who was “placed on leave” (read: suspended) last week for a tweet deemed offensive to National Rifle Association members.

Reaction to The Chronicle’s coverage of the incident (and there was a great deal of reaction) suggests that most readers can be divided into one of four categories: those who agree with the professor’s sentiments and don’t think he should be punished; those who basically agree but believe he went too far and deserves what he gets; those who disagree and would like to see him strung up by his, um, toes; and those who disagree but believe he has a right to speak his mind without penalty.

Count me squarely in the fourth group. I don’t like what Mr. Guth said, for reasons I won’t go into here because they’re not relevant to this post. But I also believe he has a right to say it without risking his livelihood—and I don’t think he crossed any line. While acknowledging that free speech has limits, I’m not convinced that his tweet falls into the “yelling fire in a crowded theater” category.

The tweet’s wording makes it clear that he’s not calling for violence against NRA members but rather wishing for them the same kind of heartache that, in his opinion, their policies create for others. As one Chronicle commenter put it, the tweet is “more like a curse than a call to action.”

And make no mistake: This is a free-speech issue. Specifically, it’s a case of the government, in the form of a state university, attempting to censor someone who expressed his opinion as a private citizen. And if you don’t believe his suspension was politically motivated, in a conservative state like Kansas, then I’ve got some oceanfront property outside of Topeka that I’d like to sell you. That’s exactly the sort of partisan, government-sponsored censorship that the First Amendment was designed to prevent.

That Mr. Guth works for the university is irrelevant, except to the extent that it gives the state power to make his life miserable. In what way did his tweet have anything to do with his work as a professor? In what way was it—to use the language of the Garcetti v. Ceballos Supreme Court decision concerning free-speech protections for public employees—“pursuant to his duties”? In what way does it affect his ability to do his job? How has it really hurt the institution or its students?

Oh, that’s right. Now the whole world knows that the University of Kansas, like every other college in the country, has leftist professors. That was a closely guarded secret until this guy let the cat out of the bag. I suppose that shocking revelation might cost the university a few donors, at least until the flap dies down. But I imagine it will recover.

This is not, by the way, an academic-freedom issue, strictly speaking, because the tweet in question was not directly connected to Mr. Guth’s work. However, when an institution of higher education censors speech anywhere, that action has a chilling effect on speech everywhere, including the classroom.

I call on the university’s administrators to rescind any sanctions they may have imposed and allow Mr. Guth to return to his duties. Show the nation what it means to value free speech and the free exchange of ideas, on and off the campus, even when that speech is repugnant. Make a clear statement that, even if you disagree with Mr. Guth’s opinions, you support his right to express them. Surely that’s a principle both liberals and conservatives in your state can agree on.

I further call on the National Rifle Association to publicly defend Mr. Guth. Surely your intent is not to promote the Second Amendment at the expense of the First. Isn’t that why a bunch of farmers and shopkeepers took up arms at Lexington and Concord—to assert the rights of a free people, including the right to speak their minds without being punished by the government? This is your chance to show a skeptical public that, as an organization, you support the entire Constitution, not just one line in it.

Even as our political discourse in this country grows increasingly uncivil, we have to recognize that we’re not going to get anywhere by trying to silence one another. That’s a game two can play, to the ultimate detriment of both. The upper hand in any situation is never more than temporary, so that the censorship you exercise today may be turned against you tomorrow. All ideas, except perhaps those that truly advocate violence, deserve to be heard. The bad ones need not be forcibly suppressed, as they will eventually die on their own of neglect. As Jefferson put it, “reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

Fortunately, a controversy like this gives us all an opportunity to listen to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” May we make the most of that opportunity.

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