SMPA professor’s ‘bedbug’ tweet spurs discussion about civility, free speech

Media Credit: Lillian Bautista | Photographer

School of Media and Public Affairs Associate Director Dave Karpf tweeted last week that bedbugs found in the New York Times offices are a "metaphor" for conservative Times columnist Bret Stephens.

School of Media and Public Affairs Associate Director Dave Karpf had just wrapped up a class on the first day of school when he logged onto Twitter for a “light distraction.”

While scrolling through his feed, he saw a report from the news organization Slate about a bedbug infestation in the offices of The New York Times and, after thinking for a moment, tweeted that the bedbugs were a metaphor for conservative Times columnist Bret Stephens.

On his way home from work, Karpf was disappointed to see that his tweet got zero retweets and just nine likes but was “surprised” to find an email from Stephens – with Provost Forrest Maltzman copied – in his inbox when he arrived home. Stephens said Karpf’s comments constituted a “new low” for online discourse.

Karpf said Stephens’ response to his online comment “violates” principles of academic freedom and stifles the free speech of non-tenured, female and minority academics. Academic freedom experts said professors are largely free to express their opinions on social media.

“That would have a chilling effect on the speech of any younger academic or any academic who is less secure in a number of ways than me,” Karpf said.

Karpf said that while the media attention was “goofy fun” for him – a white, male, tenured professor – the comment would have been susceptible to online hate and threats if Stephens directed his response at a woman or person of color.

He said he felt confident that he would not face disciplinary action from officials because he has tenure. But he would have worried about Stephens’ email had he been a non-tenured professor because he would have become known for “mouthing off” on social media, Karpf said.

“That’s an abuse of power that would have real consequences for some people,” he said.

Karpf said the fact that Stephens copied Maltzman on the email proves that Stephens was not interested in “civility” but rather in asserting his sense of superiority. In his email, Stephens invited Karpf to his home to meet his wife and children and call him a “bedbug” to his face.

“It’s not a genuine invite to his house,” Karpf said. “It’s not a genuine call for civility. This is him saying, ‘I’m a columnist at The New York Times, people like you are supposed to be fearful of columnists in The New York Times because we have a higher station in life than you.’”

Once Karpf tweeted Stephens’ email, news organizations like The Daily Caller and NPR reached out to him for interviews, and the email generated an unexpectedly large response from other Twitter users.

Maltzman publicly responded to Stephens’ email affirming the University’s commitment to protecting academic freedom and invited him to speak on campus about “civil discourse in the digital age” – a response Karpf called “spot-on.”

Karpf said that although officials have not yet decided on an exact date and time, Stephens accepted Maltzman’s offer to come to campus this academic year to discuss issues relating to online civility.

Maltzman told The Hatchet that Karpf’s tweet is a “protected right” embedded in the faculty code and guidelines for exercising and defending academic freedom.

“Discussing issues such as how to enhance civil discourse is an important national conversation and is a conversation that our students should be a part of,” Maltzman said in an email. “It is important that speakers with different views have an opportunity to defend their views on university campuses that value freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

Shortly after Karpf sent out his tweets, Stephens wrote an op-ed piece comparing the spread of online hate over social media platforms like Twitter to “political fury” channeled over the radio in Nazi Germany.

Although Stephens did not directly mention Karpf in the piece, he included a quote from an anti-Semite overheard in Warsaw, Poland during World War II saying, “The bedbugs are on fire. The Germans are doing a great job.”

Karpf said the column “crosses the line” and is in “extraordinarily bad taste.” He said he hopes that GW will bring Stephens to campus soon so they can meet face-to-face to discuss Stephens’ response to Karpf’s initial tweets and his latest Times column.

“I have words for him, and I would like to say them in a public setting,” he said in an email.

Two New York Times spokespeople did not return multiple requests for comment.

Higher education experts said professors generally have the freedom to express their opinions without retribution from the university where they are employed.

Robert Post, a professor of law at Yale University, called Stephens’ email to Karpf and Maltzman “unreasonable” because academic freedom grants professors the right to publicly express their opinions. He added that the University’s decision to invite Stephens to speak at GW will create a beneficial “educational moment” for students and faculty about civil discussion on social media.

“One doesn’t have to approve of the way everyone talks as a matter of citizenship, one can say, ‘Well, we should be more civil,’” Post said. “This is not a matter of sanctioning, it’s a matter of maybe life would be better if we talk to each other without using language like bedbugs.”

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a former president of the American Association of University Professors, said the concept of academic freedom was designed to protect faculty who present “unconventional” ideas to further advance knowledge in their field.

“It’s the glue that holds the university together,” Nelson said. “It is the fundamental principle of higher education.”

He said academic freedom does not protect individuals whose online comments indicate they are unfit to fulfill their professional duties, giving the hypothetical example of a climate scientist claiming that climate change is a hoax. He said Karpf’s tweet does not have any bearing “whatsoever” on his work because his tweet, while an insult, did not contribute to spreading disinformation about his academic discipline.

“That’s the big distinction in social media, not whether you insult people, not whether you act like an idiot, but whether statements that you make have bearing on your professional responsibilities,” Nelson said.

Ilena Peng contributed reporting.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.