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Embattled KU prof takes planned sabbatical early

Published on -9/23/2013, 2:13 PM

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- An embattled University of Kansas professor began a planned sabbatical early after the fallout from his tweet about the Navy Yard shootings in Washington.

The university said Friday that David W. Guth, an associate professor of journalism, had been placed on indefinite administrative leave.

After last week's shootings that killed 13, including the gunman, Guth tweeted: "The blood is on the hands of the (hash)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.

In February, Guth was awarded a sabbatical to start in spring 2014 to research how rural community journalists survive in the 21st century, according to faculty meeting minutes posted online.

In an email Saturday, he told the AP that the safety of students is the top priority and he agreed to take the sabbatical early to allow "some time for cooler heads to prevail."

He said the move is "painful" because he enjoyed his interactions with students.

Guth 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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