Of Free Speech and Faculty Senates

October 28, 2013

The Faculty Senate blog shares information and insights to the Faculty of Clemson University. Topics discussed  do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Faculty Senate, the Faculty of Clemson, or Clemson University.

In the wake of the shooting at the Washington Naval Yard on September 16, 2013, David Guth, an associate professor of Journalism at Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism, tweeted the following:


Guth’s incendiary tweet soon came to the attention of Campus Reform, a website maintained by the conservative Leadership Institute. In an article from September 19, the website attacked Guth for suggesting that “he would like to see the murder of children of National Rifle Association (NRA) members at the hands of a deranged gunman.” While Kansas University officials initially supported Guth’s right to express his personal opinions, Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs at KU, released a statement stating that “it is truly disgraceful that these views were expressed in such a callous and uncaring way. We expect all members of the university community to engage in civil discourse and not make inflammatory and offensive comments.” On Friday, September 20,  Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little placed Guth on “indefinite administrative leave”  in order “to prevent disruptions to the learning environment for students and not because of the nature of the professor’s comments, regardless of how controversial they may be.”

Guth’s suspension was viewed as a violation of personal free speech right and academic freedom by some; significantly, no faculty body was consulted before Kansas administration made their decision to suspend Guth. On October 10th, the Kansas Faculty Senate passed a resolution reaffirming the right of faculty to free speech, stating that “The University of Kansas Faculty Senate endorses the principles of First Amendment rights, academic freedom, and due process, and will work to see that these principles are followed with respect to all faculty.” The Committee on Faculty Rights, Privileges and Responsibilities of the Kansas Faculty Senate dealt with the controversy surrounding Guth’s tweet more specifically, arguing that Guth’s suspension was a sanction in violation of KU’s University Rules and Regulations and the Faculty Code of Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct. The following week, the university, acting on the recommendation of a seven-member panel of faculty and staff assembled by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, allowed Guth to return to Kansas University; however, he has been assigned non-classroom duties, and has been asked to work off-campus as much as possible.

While the university’s decision to allow Guth to return to work is commendable, and the Faculty Senate’s support of free-speech is applause worthy, the entire episode raises concerns for free speech in academia in general and at public universities specifically. Much of the pressure placed on the administration of the University of Kansas came from right-wing legislators in the Kansas statehouse, proving once again that politicians are no great respecters of academic freedom. Administrators and faculty will have to work with legislators to create a balance between academic freedom and proper government oversight.Chancellor Gray-Little, with the assistance of faculty and staff, found a compromise in this situation.

Clemson’s Faculty Manual provides another answer to this conundrum. The Manual states that “Faculty members are citizens, members of learned professions, and officers of institutions of higher learning. As members of a community, Clemson faculty members have the rights and obligations of any citizen. They measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their students, disciplines, professions, and to the University. When they speak or write as private persons, faculty shall be free from institutional censorship or disciplinary action, but they shall avoid creating an impression that they are speaking or acting for the University. When they speak or write within the areas of their expertise, faculty have the right to identify themselves by academic rank and institutional affiliation. In so doing, they should not assert or imply that they are acting as spokespersons for the University. As professional educators and academic officers, they are aware that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, faculty members should endeavor to be accurate, to exercise due restraint, to show respect for the utterances of others, and, when appropriate, to indicate that they are not officially representing Clemson University.” Clemson combines personal and academic freedom with personal and academic responsibility. Rights ought to be governed by respect.

Much can be said for creating a welcoming environment at institutions of higher learning; however, part of the job of educators is to challenge, and in some cases, offend. Guth’s tweet was doubtlessly  tasteless, but responding to offensive scholars is the responsibility of the academy, not politicians and interest groups. Mutual respect and academic responsibility provide the best limits for outrageous speech.

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