The Corner

Kansan Conservatives Fight Against Free Expression

NPR reports that academics at government-run universities in Kansas will henceforth be expected to follow state-sanctioned speech codes:

The Kansas Board of Regents gave final approval Wednesday to a strict new policy on what employees may say on social media. Critics say the policy violates both the First Amendment and academic freedom, but school officials say providing faculty with more specific guidelines will actually bolster academic freedom on campus.

The controversial policy was triggered by an equally controversial tweet posted last September by David Guth, an associate journalism professor. Reacting to a lone gunman who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., he wrote:

“The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”

Guth was placed on administrative leave after an outcry from the public and state lawmakers.

Is this unconstitutional? Maybe. Were Guth an employee of a private university, this would be solely a question of morality: To wit, “Should private universities tell their staff how they may speak.” My answer to that — as usual — would be, “No.” But it wouldn’t be an issue of law.

Guth, however, is not an employee of a private university; he works for the state. And on this, the jurisprudence is now somewhat confused. Until the 1960s, the Supreme Court largely followed a principle best summed up by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1892, that “there may be a constitutional right to talk politics, but there is no constitutional right to be a policeman.” In 1952, in Adler v Board of Education, the Court put the principle even more clearly, deciding that individuals “have a constitutional right to say and think as [they] will, but [they] have no constitutional right to work for the government.” Since that time, however, the court has dissembled a little, attempting in a host of subsequence cases to balance the right of the individual to contribute to matters of public import with the right of the employer to ensure that its services are offered to the public in an unsullied way. In all honesty, it is difficult to tell quite where Guth fits in here.

Either way, one thing is sure: This measure is an unlovely one. How is this for Orwellian language?:

school officials say providing faculty with more specific guidelines will actually bolster academic freedom on campus.

Of course. Freedom is slavery and all that.

Worse, an elected representative actually offered the “I believe in free speech but . . .” canard with a straight face:

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a member of the Kansas House of Representatives and the National Rifle Association, says he was outraged by the tweet. He supports the board of regents’ new policy to place parameters on professors.

“Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can’t go this far,” he says. “I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the board of regents on what’s acceptable and what’s not is better for everyone involved.”

Couture-Lovelady is a Republican. The governor that appointed the board that set the rules is a Republican. This is not a good look, guys.

Are we really to presume that the United States will be a better place if Kansan academics are prevented from saying in public what is on their minds in private? Are we really to presume that this policy is “better for everyone involved”? And are we really to presume that it is better for the NRA and for the Right in general if its harsher critics are punished by lawmakers for their denunciations? I rather think not. Indeed, I’m reasonably sure that the majority of conservatives simultaneously believe three things: 1) That Guth is an extremely silly man; 2) That attempting to shut him and his colleagues up constitutes government overreach; and 3) That even if it’s not illegal, it’s immoral. Are we going to stand for this?

For the past half-century or so, conservatives have built up a stellar record in the area of free expression. It is the Left that wishes to impose speech codes on college campuses and beyond. It is the Left that wishes to limit the legal bounds of free expression, introducing pernicious ideas such as “hate speech” and attempting to shut those they dislike out of the Constitution’s legal protections. It is the Left that has taken to mounting witch-hunts in order to destroy the careers of anybody who refuses to acquiesce with the zeigeist. The Right’s principled opposition to this is something of which it should be genuinely proud. Really, there’s no need to get all imperious because someone said something stupid about the NRA.


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