An ad hoc committee of the Arizona Legislature held hearings this month to examine free speech at Arizona’s public universities.
The meeting was provoked by an internal conflict at Arizona State University that led a wealthy benefactor to withdraw funding.
Republican lawmakers who called the hearing walked into heavy blowback.
“With all due respect, spare me,” Rep. Analise Ortiz, a Democrat, said. “This problem was manufactured. Everything else here today is political theater and a waste of our time.”
Jodi Liggett of the Arizona Center for Women’s Advancement and self-described “happy warrior,” tweeted, “Ok you’re free to have your dumb ideas, AND I am free to say those ideas are dumb or your funder is dumb for investing in them. Dear capitalists – recall the marketplace of ideas? The ‘invisible hand’ is smacking you upside the head. Quit crying.”
The Barrett letter was a provocation
Let’s consider what happened at Arizona State University.
On Feb. 1, no less than 39 faculty members at ASU’s Barrett Honors College signed a letter opposing three conservatives scheduled to speak on campus.
They directed most of their fire at two speakers, Dennis Prager, a nationally syndicated radio talk host, and Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, an organization that promotes conservatism among high school and college students.
The faculty letter described the two speakers as “purveyors of hate” … “anti-intellectual” … “anti-democratic” … “two white nationalist provocateurs” … “who regularly attack our democracy.”
The Barrett letter was, itself, a provocation. Inked in acid.
People noticed. People were provoked.
Dennis Prager is not hateful or a bigot
Dennis Prager has been speaking for decades to Americans across this nation on now nearly 400 radio affiliates.
To call him a purveyor of hate is a libel. To describe him as anti-intellectual is a lie.
His talk-radio program is unique for its sweep of intellectual topics from classical music to Russian history to Jewish folklore to constitutional principles. Thirty years before there was the intellectual dark web, there was Dennis Prager.
A man of real warmth and decency, Prager eschews the fire-breather politics of our day.
He founded the online Prager University to calmly teach conservative principles to young people, and the site now draws a billion-plus page views per year.
He is not hateful. He is not a bigot. He is decent to his core.
ASU hates free speech?That’s laughable, considering the source
Millions of his listeners across decades would vouch for that. They know that if you call Prager unworthy to visit your campus, you call them unworthy, too.
Can critics find Prager quotes that are irreverent and controversial? Yes, they can.
But removed from their larger context — his vast body of work as one of the most widely broadcast voices in the country — they become a distortion.
Further, this is a nasty little game that can be played both ways, as I will demonstrate later.
Charlie Kirk is a different animal
Charlie Kirk is a different cat than Prager. He is a provocateur, not unlike the Barrett 39.
He’s a skillful communicator who grew audience faster than he grew wisdom as he rode the coattails of Donald Trump to national fame.
Still young (he’s not yet 30), he has taken on the persona of Trump and practices the former president’s smash-mouth politics.
He has drawn well-earned criticism for some foul opinions, but he’s also been the target of leftist slurs, such as those hurled from ABC TV’s “The View,” which had to retract them more than once.
The Barrett letter isn’t primarily about de-platforming Prager and Kirk.
It’s a writ of divorce.
Faculty protest wasn’t about either speaker
It’s a screed about the past sins of the T.W. Lewis Center, which was created with funding from real estate investor and philanthropist Tom Lewis to help teach Barrett students professional and life skills.
The Barrett faculty wrote, “This [speaking] event marks the culmination of a long history of choices made by the leadership of the Lewis Center, the sum of which demonstrate a vision for the center that runs contrary to the core values of the Barrett community.”
Months later, in a June 19 guest column, Ann Atkinson, executive director of the Lewis Center, revealed to the nearly 4 million readers of The Wall Street Journal that “as of June 30, ASU will dismantle the Lewis Center and terminate my position as its executive director.”
“ASU claims to value freedom of expression,” she wrote. “But in the end the faculty mob always wins.”
In an unsigned and snotty little riposte, ASU asserted that, in fact, free speech had flourished.
Atkinson’s “conclusion … misses the obvious point” that the event went on as scheduled, the university explained.
The faculty, too, got to express their free speech rights when they condemned the event, said ASU.
ASU posts a snarky response to Atkinson
As for Atkinson and the Lewis Center, well, “Ms. Atkinson’s current job at the university will no longer exist after June 30 because the donor who created and funded the center decided to terminate his donation. Unfortunate, but hardly unprecedented.”
That’s one way to put it.
Another way is how Tom Lewis put it:
“After seeing this level of left-wing hostility and activism, I no longer had any confidence in Barrett to adhere to the terms of our gift, and made the decision to terminate our agreement, effective June 30, 2023.”
Either way, when all is said and done, the cold, hard math of the matter is this:
Lewis is gone as donor. The center he funded is going. And the center’s director, Atkinson, is looking for a new job.
The Barrett 39 win.
Barrett faculty won. And they’ll do it again
In ASU’s snarky response to Atkinson, it added, “Ann Atkinson has lost the distinction between feelings and fact.”
That’s quite a thing to write.
There are a hundred new-wave feminists on the ASU campus alone who would instantly recognize the oozing sexism in that retort — the retrograde “hysterical woman” bit.
Somebody at ASU wrote that line, and somebody signed off on it.
Get the picture?
When speech isn’t protected everyone is vulnerable.
Thirty-nine ASU faculty members brazenly and successfully blew up a learning center inside their own college. They used offensive speech as their pretext.
The obvious point is that people who would do that will do it again.
The obvious question is who’s next?
Many will contemplate that with trepidation. And it won’t just be campus conservatives.
Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at email@example.com.