Barbara Shelly

Professor Guth’s tweet was wrong. So is reaction from Kansas legislators.

Updated: 2013-09-24T23:02:14Z

By Barbara Shelly

The Kansas City Star

University of Kansas professor David Guth’s predicament should provide a teachable moment for his journalism students. In a nutshell, it is this: Be careful what you tweet. Many a promising career — in journalism and elsewhere — has run aground on the startling power of a 140-character comment unleashed on the Internet.

Guth tweeted something very harsh in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington last week. Here it is: “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.”

The problem is the second sentence. It’s completely rational to blame the NRA and other pro-gun groups for promoting the political climate that has made it nearly impossible to enact reasonable gun-safety measures in America. But you never, never want to appear to be willing harm to someone’s children.

Guth is now on paid administrative leave, while a debate swirls around what, if anything, the university can do to sanction the professor.

I guess I would want to know more about Guth before weighing in on that. Based on his resume and other material, he appears to be a prolific and engaged faculty member. His tweet should be balanced against his contributions to the university and the full body of his work.

Unfortunately, that is not the opinion of some members of the Kansas Legislature. Senate President Susan Wagle, Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce and Overland Park Sen. Greg Smith are among those who have called for Guth to be fired. All are Republicans.

A GOP legislator, Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady of Palco, hinted in an interview with The Huffington Post that KU’s state funding could hinge on how its leaders deal with Guth. “I could see something like this being detrimental to their cause,” he said. “Things like this hurt their cause, and it’s unfortunate. I want to see them continue to grow.”

These lawmakers are out of line. It’s not their job to order a university professor to be fired. As for the funding hammer, let’s show some perspective here.

The University of Kansas is a major teaching and research institution serving 28,000 students on five campuses. It offers 345 degree programs and does particularly good work in the fields of special education, city management, rural medicine and social work. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the few institutions that distinguishes the state of Kansas as more than simply a land mass in the Heartland. Lawmakers are going to dock its funding because of four sentences tweeted by a single professor? Come on.

In terms of offensiveness, I’d put Guth’s comments in the same bracket as a remark uttered by a Republican Kansas legislator a couple of years ago. While listening to testimony about the effectiveness of using sharpshooters in helicopters to control feral pigs in rural Kansas, Rep. Virgil Peck of Tyro said, “Looks like to me, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem.”

Peck’s remark was deemed “inappropriate” by Republican leaders, who called the lawmaker in for “counseling.” I don’t recall a clamor for his resignation from any of the people who are now calling for Guth’s termination.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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