Opinion Columns & Blogs

January 5, 2014

Michael A. Smith: Gun rights but not free speech

Kansas professors may soon have the right to carry guns to class but not to speak freely on social media.

Kansas professors may soon have the right to carry guns to class but not to speak freely on social media.

The gun policy passed before University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth’s notorious Twitter post, while the free speech restrictions came afterward and possibly in response.

After a national shooting tragedy, Guth tweeted to National Rifle Association supporters, “Next time, let it be your sons and daughters.” Now Kansas campuses have landed in the crosshairs of two questions: What are the proper limits on the freedom to carry guns? What are the proper limits on the freedom of speech?

First comes the gun issue. The staunchly pro-gun Legislature has removed the campus exemptions from the state’s concealed-carry gun laws. Within four years, Kansas universities may be required to recognize concealed-carry permits unless they take ludicrously implausible safety measures, such as limiting access, installing metal detectors and placing security guards in every building.

Gun-rights supporters argue that this deters the extremely rare but horrible phenomenon of school shootings. Unfortunately, I see little hope that I could draw and fire a concealed gun before an armed, prepared assailant could take me down, and I have a little trouble imagining a classroom militia of strapped professors. Still, I have good friends, family and students who support the NRA’s position. I disagree, but respect their opinions and care deeply about their safety.

Guth’s tweet was personal and deeply offensive, and demanded a response. However, the Kansas Board of Regents overreacted. Now free speech enters the picture.

Last month the regents passed a new policy targeting faculty who post controversial material on social media, on the questionable grounds that social media are fundamentally different from earlier forms of communication. Local and national reaction came immediately. Stories and editorials in the Washington Post and Chronicle of Higher Education blogs, The Eagle, Kansas City Star, Lawrence Journal-World and elsewhere noted that this policy is unprecedented in any state.

Instead of avoiding social media, I joined hundreds of Kansas faculty in supporting a new Facebook group opposed to the policy, while distinguished professors sent open letters to newspapers around the state, stating concerns.

The policy allows university presidents to fire faculty for any post that “is contrary to the best interest of the university,” “impairs discipline by superiors” or “has a detrimental impact on close working relationships.” These vague standards directly contradict the academic freedom, tenure and scholarly inquiry that underlay free, open teaching and research.

The regents now call upon each campus to pass a grievance policy so that arbitrary firings can be challenged, and to form a working group to recommending revisions to the policy, due by April. This is progress, but the best option is to just repeal it: Guth already faces administrative leave from teaching and review of his case under KU’s earlier policies.

The outrageous and offensive nature of Guth’s tweet was uncalled for, but the reaction is overkill. Larger principles are now at stake.

I abhor Guth’s choice of words, but stand ready to fight for his right to say them. I do not need a gun to do it.

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