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"I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick."

Erik Loomis, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, wrote those words on Twitter on Friday, responding to the day's horrific news about the murders in Newtown, Conn. There has been no shortage of rhetoric about guns and violence in the wake of last week's tragedy. But the Loomis tweet has set off another debate -- one about rhetoric, metaphors and academic freedom, not just gun laws and violence.

LaPierre is CEO of the National Rifle Association. In the past few days, conservative bloggers and columnists have cited Loomis and his tweet as a literal threat against LaPierre. Loomis says that he was engaged in the use of rhetoric and metaphor and that he never called for anyone's murder. On Wednesday, David M. Dooley, the president of the University of Rhode Island, issued a statement in which he said that the institution "does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the university." That statement has alarmed many professors at URI and elsewhere, who say that Dooley has endorsed the view that Loomis was in fact calling for violence -- and thus was undercutting a faculty member under attack for his political views.

Critics of Loomis have been quick to describe the tweet as literal. The blog American Thinker wrote, under the headline "Professor Calls for Murder of NRA President," the following: "A professor at a taxpayer-supported state university has called for the murder of the president of the NRA. Apparently the carnage in Newtown, Connecticut was not enough slaughter to satisfy the blood lust of Erik Loomis...." At National Review Online, the headline was "The Post-Newtown Witch Hunt: Anti-gun champions of nonviolence urge violent death on NRA members." Other bloggers have taken to attacking Loomis's scholarship (which focuses on environmental and labor history).

Loomis -- a prominent figure in the academic blogosphere -- wrote at Lawyers, Guns and Money that he never intended to call for violence against LaPierre or anyone. "I want to make it blindingly clear that I did not call for the assassination of Wayne LaPierre. In my world, calling for someone’s head on a stick is a metaphor to hold them responsible for their actions. I think the last time 'head on a stick' actually meant murder was sometime around 1450. That anyone would take this seriously as a murder threat is completely absurd. What stinks about it is that it has now involved my family, colleagues, and university. So I’ll apologize to them and to anyone legitimately offended by my metaphor," Loomis wrote.

Further, he wrote that those taking his tweet literally "KNOW I'm not calling for LaPierre's assassination," and that he understood that he was part of this week's "right-wing Two-Minute hate." While agreeing that he should be more hesitant to use violent metaphors, Loomis questioned whether the use of metaphor should really be seen as the big issue right now. "I probably shouldn’t use that language and certainly will be a lot more conscious going forward of not using it again, particularly since it doesn’t help in the battle against actual violence. Violence is a huge societal problem that influences all of us in various ways," he wrote. "Some may use violent metaphors to express their frustrations. Others join organizations that support assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons being in the hands of anyone without any sort of background check or regulation. I’ll leave it to you to decide who is the bigger problem."

For academic bloggers like Loomis, being attacked by bloggers on the opposite side of the political spectrum isn't unusual -- or (to most of them) particularly alarming. But the blog Crooked Timber (well-respected in the social sciences) started an open letter Wednesday in response to the way the University of Rhode Island has handled the controversy, which the blog characterized as a campaign to smear a young scholar who doesn't yet have tenure and the job security that provides.

"We do not expect any better of the orchestrators of this campaign — this is what they have done for many years, and doubtless will be doing for years to come. We do expect better of university administrators. Rather than standing behind a member of their faculty, the administration has sought to distance the university from Loomis," the statement says. "Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a 'threat of violence' is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement — unless it is swiftly corrected — should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom."

The petition was organized by Chris Bertram of the University of Bristol, Michael Bérubé of  Pennsylvania State University,  Henry Farrell of George Washington University, Kieran Healy of Duke University, Jon Mandle of the State University of New York at Albany, John Quiggin of the University of Queensland, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College and Brian Weatherson of the University of Michigan. As of Wednesday evening, the number of academics joining the statement was nearing 400.

Other blogs are also weighing in on the University of Rhode Island president's statement. A post on The Duck of Minerva, a political science blog, said that it would leave to others to debate the Loomis tweet, but that the president's statement needed to be denounced. The headline of the post: "Academic Administrative Fecklessness."

Dooley could not be reached Wednesday evening, and the university's website appeared to be down for several hours, making it unclear whether e-mail messages to him seeking comment had been received.

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