WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The University of Kansas disputed Monday a journalism professor’s contention that he began a planned sabbatical early amid fallout from his tweet about the Navy Yard shootings.
After last week’s shootings that killed 13 people, including the gunman, KU professor David. W. Guth tweeted: “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 told The Associated Press last week the post “got a conversation going — that was exactly what I wanted to do.” But it has also raised legal questions about how far employers can go in holding workers accountable for what they say on social media.
The university on Friday said Guth, an associate professor of journalism, had been placed on indefinite administrative leave.
Guth told The Associated Press in an email Saturday that he “agreed to step away from the classroom to, in essence, begin a planned sabbatical early to allow some time for cooler heads to prevail.” He was awarded a sabbatical in February to start in spring 2014 for research on how rural community journalists survive in the 21st century.
But Timothy Caboni, the university’s vice chancellor for public affairs, disputed Guth’s account Monday.
“Professor Guth is on indefinite administrative leave with pay,” Caboni said in an emailed statement. “He is not on sabbatical this semester.”
Guth told the AP leaving the classroom is “painful” because he enjoyed his interactions with students.
He also blamed the National Rifle Association and its allies for waging “an unrelenting campaign of harassment” against him, the journalism school and the university — as manifested by thousands of angry tweets, phone calls and emails. Most were obscene and some contained thinly veiled death threats, he said.
His tweet also has drawn criticism from legislators, including Greg Smith, a Republican state senator from Overland Park and a high school teacher.
Smith said in a statement that as long as Guth is employed at KU, he will neither recommend it to his students as an institution worthy of attendance nor support any budget proposals or recommendations for the university.
The issue may not be as simple as that — especially regarding public employees who usually enjoy stronger First Amendment protection than private-sector employees.
Mike Selmi, who teaches employment law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told The Lawrence Journal-World that, generally, if a public employee is speaking as part of their official duties, their speech is not protected. But if it’s outside those duties, he said, the Supreme Court has found a level of protection.
Gary Brunk, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, said he didn’t like Guth’s comment, but he strongly believes it is protected speech.
“I think what the university has done is appalling,” Brunk said. “It’s one thing to do something that’s a clear threat to another person, but he just expressed an opinion.”
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