A tweet about “bedbugs” won’t harm George Washington University professor Dave Karpf’s job, despite a New York Times columnist’s effort to let school officials know one of their professors wasn’t nice to him on Twitter.
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the Times, claimed on Tuesday he wasn’t aiming to get Karpf in trouble when he copied the school’s provost on an email to Karpf, complaining about the professor’s “bedbugs” tweet about Stephens. During an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, Stephens said he just wanted to make the school aware of how its employees were interacting “with the rest of the world.”
But the tweet — which linked to an article about an outbreak of bedbugs at the New York Times building and likened Stephens himself to “bedbugs” — falls under Karpf’s right to express his opinion as a professor, according to the university’s provost office.
The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens. https://t.co/k4qo6QzIBW
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 26, 2019
In an email that professor Dave Karpf shared with TPM Tuesday, the school’s Office of the Provost responded to Stephens’ complaints about being called a bedbug by pointing to the school’s commitment to academic freedom and inviting the columnist to come to the school to “speak about civil discourse in the digital age.”
Got the email George Washington University provost sent to Bret Stephens in response to his email complaining about a prof’s bedbug tweet. The provost invites him to come speak on campus about “civil discourse in the digital age” https://t.co/kyYkssQSdB pic.twitter.com/29iKjvkTtj
— Nicole Lafond (@Nicole_Lafond) August 27, 2019
“They said exactly what I’d hoped they’d say, which is ‘Karpf didn’t do anything wrong, he’s allowed to say what he said,'” Karpf told TPM by phone. He argued that Stephens’ rationale for including his boss on an email that called him out for the metaphorical tweet — which he likened to a simple “dad joke” — didn’t “pass the paragraph-level sniff test.”
“He said he wasn’t trying to get me in trouble, he just wanted my boss to know how I’m talking, which means he’s trying to get me in trouble.”
Stephens reached out to the professor and included the school’s general Provost Office email address onto the message on Monday evening, saying Karpf, the associate director of George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs, “set a new standard” for uncivilized Twitter discourse.
“I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, and talk to us for a few minutes, then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face,” Stephens wrote. “That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”
Alright fine… here is the email: pic.twitter.com/A4E5I6CoB6
— davekarpf (@davekarpf) August 27, 2019
Karpf’s tweet, which initially had less than 10 likes at the time Stephens sent the email, eventually went viral, sparking backlash against Stephens for choosing to include Karpf’s boss on a retaliatory email. Stephens suspended his Twitter account on Tuesday morning, calling the platform a “sewer.” He also told MSNBC that the “bedbugs” comparison was reminiscent of people being “analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”
Karpf laughed at Stephens’ comparison and said his tweet was clearly a quip.
A spokesperson for the New York Times did not immediately return TPM’s requests for comment, but Karpf said he’d like to see the newspaper at least tell Stephens to “knock it off” and not use his “position of power to yell at random people on the internet,” a move that could’ve had more dire consequences for someone not in his position.
“I don’t think (Stephens) knew I have tenure, and I gotta tell you if I didn’t have tenure this would’ve terrified me. His intention in writing an email that is tiled ‘From Brett Stephens, New York Times’ is to intimidate me from making jokes about him on the internet because he thinks, apparently, that being at the New York Times should shield him from criticism,” he said.
“But since I’m tenured, and I’m a white guy, this is both not threatening and pretty funny to be in the middle of,” he continued. “And if I wasn’t a white guy, I’d be facing far worse than being called a ‘bedbug’ in a tweet.”