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« Superman and the Immigrant Experience | Main | Who is to blame? »

Prof Guth: Free Speech Hero or Hateful Academic?

By Diane Wahto
September 29, 2013

Prof. David Guth, Kansas University journalism professor, depending on whose version you believe, either took his sabbatical leave early or was suspended by the KU administration after the Tweet he sent in response to the shooting at the Navy Yard that left thirteen people dead. Guth’s Tweet, "blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” angered everyone from conservative Kansas politicians to NRA leaders and proponents.

Many of those who criticized him did so because of the implied threat against children in his Tweet. While I agree that it’s not a good idea to threaten anyone through social media, I understand Guth’s motivation. Looking back at the Newtown shooting, in which more than a score of children, teachers, and school administrators were killed, I do wonder how NRA members would feel if their children had been included in that massacre.

I have never heard anyone in the NRA leadership express sorrow over the deaths of those killed by people carrying guns that have the capacity to shoot one round after another without reloading. The best that Wayne LaPierre, NRA vice president, can come up with is his “bad guy with a gun, good guy with a gun” mantra, and a call for more resources to deal with mentally ill people.

At the risk of sounding like a radical, and at the risk of insulting the mentally ill, I have to say I think LaPierre is mentally ill if he thinks arming everyone so they will be able to fire back at a wild shooter with a gun meant for military use will solve any problems. I can imagine the scene: You’re eating in a nice restaurant with your friends, one of whom has a pistol in her purse along with her concealed carry permit. She’s one among several people with pistols in their purses or pockets. A gunman armed with a semi-automatic bursts in the door and starts firing at anybody and everybody. While you and your friends are ducking for cover, the armed friend has her pistol out to shoot at the armed intruder. Other armed diners join in the fray. Pretty soon, bullets are flying everywhere. Blood spatters decorate the floor and the walls of the once elegant restaurant and several people lie wounded or dead. At this point, it’s impossible to know whose bullet is responsible for the mayhem. The original shooter may be quelled as the shootout continues, but many other people have fallen in the crossfire, as well.

As for dealing with mentally ill people, statistically, most mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves than others. Forcing the mentally ill into treatment is a violation of their civil rights. How do we identify those people in the first place? Apparently, the Navy Yard shooter gave those around plenty of clues that he was having problems, but not one person put all those clues together.

LaPierre says background checks are a placebo. In saying this, he is once again parroting the NRA mantra that there should be no gun control at all. We should all be able to arm ourselves with whatever weapons we please, whether we want to be armed.

What LaPierre and other NRA members don’t seem to understand is that, while it’s true the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, no freedom under the Constitution is absolute. Freedom of speech is limited by libel and slander laws, and the “Yelling fire in a crowded theater” provision. Freedom of press is limited, as is freedom of assembly. People may practice freedom of religion as long as the state stays out of the mix and doesn’t require or support any religious beliefs or practices. Why, then, does the government not have the right to limit the right to bear arms? Because the NRA is well-funded and politically powerful. Even though we haven’t elected any of the NRA leadership to govern us, they are certainly in charge of what happens to us when it comes to guns.

Prof. Guth, in his Tweet, was only saying what many of us feel. As a college professor, he has the freedom of speech to express his personal opinion in any way he wants, as long as that opinion doesn’t libel or slander anyone. According to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, “Guth was placed on indefinite leave last week to avoid disruption of his classes ‘and not because of the nature of the professor's comments, regardless of how controversial they may be.’ "
Well, maybe. Maybe not. Guth said that he decided to take his sabbatical leave early to avoid the death threats against him and his colleagues because of his Tweet.

He does have his supporters. Members of the KU journalism department say they support Guth’s First Amendment rights even if they don’t agree with the content of his message.

The KU anthropology department faculty also supports his rights. “Chairwoman Jane Gibson and 14 more professors signed the statement that said: ‘Administrative leave imposed by the University of Kansas violates Dr. Guth’s rights and has a chilling effect on academic freedom.’ "

As a person who grew up in a household with guns, I’m not anti-gun. I am anti-military style weapons being in the hands of people who should never have such guns, and that includes all civilians. I support Guth in his free speech rights and I support his effort to draw NRA members’ attention to the death and destruction their policies continue to foster in America.

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