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The dangers of shooting off your mouth on controversial topics (essay)

Shooting Off Your Mouth

October 29, 2013

The renowned columnist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”

David Guth should suffer some.

To date his suffering has included six weeks with pay and being allowed to keep a previously approved semesterlong sabbatical, which will begin in January. 

Guth is the University of Kansas associate professor of journalism who tweeted on Sept. 16, “Blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you,” in response to the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.

The journalism ethics educator later compounded his sin by defending the remark -- rather than claiming an off-the-cuff moment of anger, which might have been quickly forgiven and forgotten by most outside of NRA leadership. 

By early October more than 100 Kansas faculty and staff members had come out in support of Guth’s First Amendment right to call for the murder of innocent children. Guth was on paid leave from the university while the administration evaluated the situation. While he collected on his $83,000 salary, someone else had to come in and carry his workload.

It took Guth a month and eight days to issue any kind of apology.  I suspect the university panel that voted for his return to work may have forced his hand.  Regardless, the cruel irony is that Guth’s public regrets were delivered as the families of the latest victims of a school shooting — this time at a Sparks, Nev., middle school — were still making funeral arrangements and praying at their children’s hospital bedsides.

I’ve read all the commentary on how the university should not be involved, that his place of employment is irrelevant, that this is a First Amendment issue.

I disagree on both counts.

Professor Guth’s professional position is of paramount importance here. Words matter, and he knows that well. He's built a career on it.   

As a teacher entrusted to educating and training the next generation of journalists, he exercised the poorest of judgment at an already emotionally charged time.  

Is Guth's reaction typical?  Absolutely.  And it's clear how effective that's been on the gun debate.  We must demand more of those nurturing members of the Fourth Estate. 

If a master of strategic communication can elevate the conversation no further than an I-told-you-so tweet, what exactly are KU communication students learning in their classrooms?  I'd question the band for the $125,000 they're paying for four years' tuition.

It sounds great to defend the First Amendment.  It isn’t hard to do when you truly agree — at least in theory — with the vitriol.  After all, you can remain unsoiled, protecting constitutional virtue while defending these reprehensible murderous visions.

Sure.  

And how many of you jumped to the defense of the Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy when his free speech trampled on the gay rights agenda? Or did you side with Roseanne wishing cancer on all Chick-fil-A customers? I don’t remember a single commentator defending the virtue of both parties speaking their piece.

Those who preach tolerance the loudest really only practice tolerance when it fits their own agendas.  

As a Connecticut resident, the shooting at Sandy Hook opened my eyes to both sides of the gun control debate in a way nothing had ever done.  Writing this, I still think about the uncertainty of those first few hours. My own children were in an elementary school just 20 miles away ... were they safe?  I felt paralyzed with fear.

It doesn’t surprise me that Connecticut officials quickly moved to pass some of the most restrictive gun legislation in history.  It also doesn’t surprise me that gun sales in Newtown and the rest of Connecticut rose astronomically immediately after the shooting.  Similar spikes were seen after high-profile shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Tucson, Arizona.

Wishing for peace while at the same time arming yourself for possible danger seems a natural human reaction.

What Guth fails to acknowledge is that it’s easy to be a zealot when dealing with ideas in the abstract.  But Americans no longer have that luxury.  Innocents are dying by gunfire every minute — across this country, among every age group and demographic. 

If anything, Sandy Hook made me, a strict gun control advocate, question my anti-gun stance for the first time in a serious way. 

Two days after the Sandy Hook shooting, an off-duty deputy sheriff took down a gunman at a San Antonio, Texas movie theater.  The shooter wounded two before being shot. The national news media, still offering wall-to-wall coverage of Sandy Hook, largely ignored the story.  Would San Antonio — or the country — be better off, had the off-duty officer not had the gun? 

I don’t know the answer, but I do know we need to have a serious, rational conversation about the matter rather than listening to hateful sound bites in the national news or posting angry retorts on social media every time we read or hear something with which we disagree.

Guth knows that shooting down any opposition with hate speech isn’t the role of a journalist. And it's definitely not the role of a journalism educator.

Bio

Elizabeth Barfoot Christian is an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Haven and editor of Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Culture (Lexington, 2011).

 

 

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