KU's David Guth blunders into a red-state test of the First Amendment



Careful opening that beak, buddy.
  • Careful opening that beak, buddy.
So, a white guy in Kansas has said something idiotic and sparked another tiresome round in the culture wars.

Except this time, it wasn't a knuckle-dragging Republican channeling those simpler days when women kept silent and gays were too ashamed to hold hands in public. No, this particular white guy is a member of the "liberal elite" - a professor in the journalism department at the University of Kansas.

On September 16, reacting to the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C., that claimed the lives of 13 people (counting the killer), KU's David Guth wrote on his personal blog, Snapping Turtle: "The NRA has championed a gun culture that is shredding our nation's moral authority like armor-plated bullets ripping through flesh. ... There is no justification for the widespread sale of assault weapons, high-volume magazines or hollow-point bullets. In fact, their sale is a well-documented threat to national security."

That was not the stupid part.

The stupid part was that Guth followed it up with this tweet: "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."


Guth teaches strategic communications, but this bit of public fire starting felt less than tactical. And he was maybe one atrocity too late to make his best case against the NRA. Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, had obtained his weapon legally and was already on the authorities' radar. Once those facts came to light, Guth came across as even more unhinged in his geezerlike outrage. (Not helping matters is that Guth's blog appears to predate Wordpress by a few presidential administrations. A post after his NRA screed heralds the songwriting prowess of the band Five for Fighting.)

Not that anybody noticed - at first.

But three days after that tweet, a conservative blog called CampusReform.org picked up the "story." The NRA wasted no time corralling its conservative lackeys in Kansas politics, who pounced on KU and called for Guth's head.

Leading the charge was Kansas Sen. Greg Smith, a high school social studies teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. The NRA gave Smith a 92 percent, or "A," rating in 2012. "As long as Professor Guth remains employed by the University of Kansas I will no longer recommend the university as an institution worthy of attendance by any of my students nor, as a State Senator, will I support any budget proposals or recommendations for the University of Kansas," Smith said in a press release.

In other words, Smith is willing to starve one of the largest employers in the state unless it fires one guy who tweeted something Smith didn't like. Leadership Kansans can count on.

Also windbagging it up was Senate majority leader Terry Bruce, of Hutchinson, who pronounced himself "appalled" by the tweet and implored KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little to ax Guth. Bruce, who scores a perfect 100 percent with the NRA, has also received $2,500 in campaign contributions from the organization since 2004.

Less influential but equally full of shit was Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association. In a news release, Stoneking vowed that the KSRA would do "everything possible" to see that Guth was removed from his position at the university.

Are you maybe thinking right now that the person in charge of a rifle association in Kansas has probably been involved in more reprehensible activities than Guth's tweet? Guess what?

In the backwaters of the Sunflower State, there exists a survivalist militia group called the Kansas Frontiersmen. God knows what its members do when they get together, but when they convene on the Internet, they like to grouse about Muslims, liberals and insufficiently conservative "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only). This past June, a member named James R. Miller Jr. made a belligerent post on the Frontiersmen's Facebook page condemning those who work with moderate politicians. Fill in your own [sic]s:

"They need to know we do not support this form of compromise ... I am at the point of now when some raises there fists to me in a threatening manner, I am going to respond by punching them in the throat and kicking there balls in until they can taste them."

Beneath this bit of Swiftian rhetoric, Stone-king chimed in by posting the home address of Aaron Estabrook, a member of the Manhattan, Kansas, School Board and a founder of the Moderate Party of Kansas. Estabrook is also a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Stoneking was subsequently called upon to resign from the KSRA for inciting violence against Estabrook. Unmoved by her detractors' arguments, she rode out the controversy and stayed on as president. So she could make helpful statements like this one, about Guth: "Its [sic] one thing to engage in thoughtful dialogue and speak against something but it is quite another to incite violence."

Of course, none of these Kansas Republicans sounded quite so incensed back in 2011, when Kansas Rep. Virgil Peck suggested that the state should take on illegal immigrants the same way it uses helicopters and guns to control the wild-pig population. "It looks to me that if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem," he memorably quipped.

By the end of the week, Chancellor Gray-Little announced that Guth would be taking an indefinite paid administrative leave while KU reviewed matters. What the school must ask itself now is what professors are allowed to say outside their classrooms. Guth is a public employee, but his tweet was not related to his work at the university. Does his job as a public employee abridge his First Amendment right to tweet as he pleases?

Public universities exist in part to challenge ideas, cultivate independent thinking and present differing viewpoints. Professors need the academic freedom to do these things - and, sometimes, to provoke debate - without worrying about losing their jobs. Firing Guth would reinforce for flat-earthers like Stoneking and Bruce the idea that it's acceptable to hold university funding hostage over pet political issues.

Imagine if Guth had left out the most provocative sentence of his tweet: "Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters." His clumsy remarks would still have been polarizing, but it seems unlikely that anybody would have hounded Guth over them. But in that sentence might be the line between speech that's protected and speech that, in Kansas, is not.

The only upside to this melodrama for Guth is that his case may help draw that line. Unfortunately for him, he won't have much say about which side he lands on.

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