Several high-ranking legislators have called on Kansas University to fire journalism professor David Guth over his angry social media comment directed at the National Rifle Association.
But as long as Guth separated his social media post from his position as a public employee, there is little KU can do about it, according to state employee policy.
"Under state policy, if you are going to speak out on an issue, you have to make clear you are doing so as a private citizen and not in the capacity of a state employee," said Rebecca Proctor, interim director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
The dispute is over a Twitter post from Guth in September following the shootings that left 13 dead at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Guth wrote: "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."
The comment produced a public outcry.
Guth was placed on paid administrative leave by KU officials who sharply criticized his comment, but said the action was taken not as a disciplinary measure but because the incident had caused disruption in his classes.
On Thursday, KU announced that Guth would be assigned to non-classroom activities away from campus for the remainder of the semester, and then in January he will start a planned semester-long sabbatical. Guth, who said that his tweet was misconstrued, also issued an apology.
News that Guth wasn't terminated was criticized by Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson.
"When Professor Guth took to social media to wish death and damnation upon innocent children it reflected poorly on us all. By failing to render stronger sanctions against him for his actions, I fear the Legislature will conclude that the University of Kansas has just given its endorsement to the culture of violence Professor Guth sought to glorify," Bruce said.
But state Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, said KU could not fire Guth.
"Based on my conversations with University officials, legal counsel established that it was absolutely clear that they could not terminate Professor Guth because of his actions," Wilson said. KU officials declined to comment on the issues leading to the school's decision on Guth.
On his Twitter account, Guth, originally from Maryland, described himself as "An Eastern Shoreman turned professor and historian. A devoted husband, father and dog owner. Most important: an independent thinker."
Wilson said there are other examples of state employees making controversial statements outside their jobs and the state has taken no action.
Wilson said that several members of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members conduct anti-gay protests at funerals of U.S. service members, work for the state. And he noted that in 2011 state Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, created a political firestorm when he said, "It looks like to me that if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem."
"If Senator Bruce or his colleagues are going to characterize the University or any other state agency based on the private tweets, comments or actions of a single employee, then he should also look beyond Mount Oread," Wilson said.
In addition to state policy, KU provides protections for tenured faculty against dismissal and other sanctions. The "Code of Faculty Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct" in KU's policy library guarantee's faculty "freedom of inquiry, expression, and assembly."
It also states that faculty "shall be exempt from disciplinary action" except in cases of failure to carry out academic responsibilities, violation of university regulations, fraudulent or illegal conduct, violating the rights and academic freedoms of students or staff, or a breach of professional ethics in carrying out their duties as faculty.