Higher education, ideally a bastion of free thought and inquiry, should eagerly embrace a multitude of voices and perspectives—we usually call that thinking and learning. Yet, in practice, the ubiquitous doctrines of inclusion inscribed into university charters are not without exceptions. These exceptions materialize from the judgments of self-appointed arbiters of speech, who wield the authority to classify ideas and individuals as hateful and unsafe as they break from a general orthodoxy of perspective. Disguised as protections of students from pernicious notions, these arbiters diligently strive to condemn, censor, and chill speech they do not like – while university leadership does nothing.
I experienced this exact condemnation when I orchestrated a university-sanctioned event in my capacity as the Executive Director of the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at ASU’s Barrett Honors College. The event, titled “Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” took place at ASU Gammage Auditorium on February 8, 2023. Esteemed experts joined the panel, with Dr. Radha Gopalan, a distinguished heart transplant cardiologist, engaging on health; Robert Kiyosaki, expert on money and the acclaimed author of “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” delving into wealth; and Dennis Prager, co-founder of PragerU and, for over 40 years running, a nationally syndicated radio host, addressing happiness. Complementing the panelists were speakers Charlie Kirk, the visionary behind Turning Point USA, and Tom Lewis, a notable businessman, philanthropist, and namesake donor of the Lewis Center.
At Arizona State University (ASU), the culture of arbitration of speech has infiltrated deeply. This might come as a surprise given ASU’s acclaimed reputation for its free speech policies and its president’s commitment to this cause. In June, I published editorials in the Wall Street Journal“I Paid for Free Speech at Arizona State” and in the National Review, “Some Universities Care About Free Speech…Until They Don’t,” in which I revealed the free speech crisis at ASU’s Barrett Honors College while I also praised ASU for its free speech policies, at least as they state them on paper. I had hoped for a steadfast defense against blatant infringements on free speech that undermine ASU’s policies and declarations. Regrettably, my optimism faded. With each day, ASU’s actions, or lack thereof, erode my confidence in their stated defense of free speech.
It is imperative to grasp the suppression of speech in our academic institutions and to fully comprehend the essence of true freedom of thought which can only come from true freedom of speech. Only then can we embark on endeavors that genuinely promote the education and advancement of society.
ASU President Michael Crow may declare that “speakers speak at ASU,” but can we truly consider speech as free when over 80% of the faculty retaliates against speech they deem “wrong”? Do free speech ideals hold when deans prescribe limitations on speakers’ speech? Can we claim freedom of speech when marketing materials are removed due to faculty offense, while contrasting viewpoints bask in promotional spotlight? Is speech uninhibited when professors dedicate valuable class time to condemn the speech of other units? Does true free speech persist when professors discourage student participation in an event? And then stand vigilantly at the event entrance, watching attendees approach. Can we genuinely say that speech is free when college deans fire leaders and dismantle centers that uphold values no longer in harmony with the college’s leanings? The resounding answer is no. This is free speech under siege.
On August 3, 2023, a group of scholars who convened at Princeton established the “Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry.” This assembly distinctly underscores the pressing predicament faced by numerous higher education institutions that falter in upholding cultures of robust and uninhibited speech.
The Princeton Principles squarely confront this concern: “Some members of the university community argue that robust freedom of inquiry permits speech that can ‘harm’ students’ well-being or hinder institutional efforts to attain particular conceptions of social justice or ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion.’”
The case of the Lewis Center is illustrative, with 39 of the 47 Barrett Honors College faculty launching a nationwide condemnation campaign against the Health, Wealth, and Happiness program, speakers, donors, and staff. The Barrett deans actively endorsed this campaign and exercised censorship of speech the faculty found objectionable. The campaign led to intimidations and firings, which is to say prices to pay—sanctions—for exercising free inquiry and speech.
Having policies and ratings extolling free speech alone isn’t enough if university leadership doesn’t enforce their own standards. My experiences at ASU revealed a bureaucratic machinery that prioritizes safeguarding the institution’s interests over addressing free speech violations. I spent months reporting these violations internally and escalated the matter to ASU’s upper echelons and even testified in a legislative hearing. As of mid-August 2023, ASU and its board maintain that they have discovered “a series of examples of unfettered free speech,” aligning with the arbiters.
Self-governance alone proves inadequate in safeguarding our First Amendment rights on campus. The arbiters of speech are not likely to relinquish their control in the absence of decisive action by leadership. The responsibility rests upon parents, students, donors, the media, concerned citizens, and elected officials to unite and reestablish freedom of speech without fear of retribution, for there is no freedom of anything if it comes with a penalty for its exercise, including speech.
The Princeton Principles underscore that “If there is clear and convincing evidence that faculty members and administrators are not adequately fulfilling their responsibilities to foster and defend a culture of free inquiry on campus, other agents including regents, trustees, students, and alumni groups in the wider campus network may and indeed should become involved.”
Gratitude must be extended to parents, students, alumni, donors, lawmakers, and concerned citizens for following this story who rallied behind the cause of free speech. Special acknowledgment should be given to leaders like Arizona Senator Anthony Kern and State Representative Quang Nguyen for co-chairing the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on the Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities. And sincere thanks should be extended to Arizona Speaker of the House Ben Toma and Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen for their unwavering support of free speech for all.
Despite receiving broad support, sustained vigilance is imperative. We must persist in recognizing speech suppression and holding university leadership accountable for defending the realm of free speech, even for ideas deemed offensive, such as, laughably, health, wealth, and happiness.
On Tuesday, a joint committee of the Arizona legislature launched an investigation into allegations of censorship at Arizona State University (ASU). Lawmakers issued a 60-day deadline to conduct the investigation.
The directive arose from the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities hearing concerning the T.W. Lewis Center, shuttered this year after the revocation of $400,000 in annual funding from its namesake, Tom Lewis, who cited “left-wing hostility and activism” as his reason for defunding the program.
Lewis’ contention arose from the efforts of 37 Barrett Honors College faculty members, who launched a coordinated campaign to prevent an event featuring prominent conservative speakers Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk. Prager testified at Tuesday’s hearing; he also published an opinion piece on the event ahead of the hearing.
State Sens. Anthony Kern, co-chair (R-LD27), Frank Carroll (R-LD28), Sally Ann Gonzales (D-LD20), Christine Marsh (D-LD04), and J.D. Mesnard (R-LD13) served on the committee, as did State Reps. Quang Nguyen (R-LD01), Lorena Austin (R-LD09), Analise Ortiz (D-LD24), Beverly Pingerelli (D-LD28), and Austin Smith (R-LD29). Kern and Nguyen served as co-chairs.
“This is to get to the bottom of a state-funded university that is not meeting its obligation to freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” said Kern.
The center relied on an annual budget of around $1 million; ASU representatives explained that the center would live on through the classes taught, though the actual center itself and the executive director at its helm, Ann Atkinson, would be gone.
ASU Vice President of Legal Affairs Kim Demarchi explained that Lewis’ funding provided for career development and education. Demarchi testified that ASU considered what programs it could continue without Lewis’ funding, and declared that they could only sustain the faculty without Lewis’ funding. Demarchi also shared that the Barrett Honors faculty weren’t punished in any way for the letter or allegations of intimidation.
“It is possible it [their letter] has a chilling effect,” said Demarchi.
However, Demarchi clarified that a professor would have to explicitly threaten a student’s grade in order to be in violation of university policy.
Atkinson went public with the closure of the Lewis Center last month. (See the response from ASU). She toldAZ Free News that the university turned down alternative funding sources that would make up for the loss of Lewis’ funding necessary to keep the Lewis Center running.
Nguyen opened up the hearing by recounting his survival of Vietnam’s communist regime as a child, and comparing that regime’s hostility to free speech to the actions of Barrett Honors College faculty.
“My understanding is that there is an effort to prevent conservative voices from being heard,” said Nguyen. “I crossed 12,000 miles to look for freedom, to seek freedom.”
Nguyen expressed disappointment that none of the 37 faculty members that signed onto the letter showed up to testify in the hearing. He said if he accused someone, he would show up to testify.
Democratic members of the committee contended that the event occurred and therefore censorship hadn’t taken place. Kern said the occurrence of the event doesn’t resolve whether freedom of speech was truly permitted, citing the closure of the Lewis Center.
ASU Executive Vice Provost Pat Kenney emphasized the importance of freedom of expression as critical to a free nation. Nguyen asked whether Kenney read the Barrett letter, and agreed to it. Kenney said the letter was freedom of expression. He claimed the letter didn’t seek cancellation of the event.
“When faculty speak out on their own like that, they’re covered on the same topic we’re here about, which is free speech,” said Kenney.
ASU representatives claimed near the beginning of the hearing that Lewis and ASU President Michael Crow had discussed the withdrawal of funding. However, toward the end of the hearing Kern announced that he’d received information from a Lewis representative that the pair hadn’t discussed the funding, and accused ASU representatives of lying.
Ortiz called the anonymous complaints from students hypotheticals because no formal complaints were lodged. She also claimed that the hearing was merely an attempt to delegitimize public and higher education. Marsh claimed that lawmakers shouldn’t consider the claims of student fears of retaliation because the students should’ve gone to ASU directly.
Nguyen asked whether ASU would defend guest speakers, such as himself, if ASU faculty were to lodge claims of white nationalism. Kenney said that, in a personal capacity, ASU faculty were free to make their claims, but not if they spoke out on ASU’s behalf.
Atkinson contested with the characterization that the Barrett faculty spoke out in their personal capacity. She pointed out that Barrett faculty signed the letter in their capacity as ASU faculty, emailed her using their ASU emails, and sent communications to students about opposing the event using ASU technology.
Ortiz announced receipt of a letter from the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) on the outcome of the requested investigation into the incident, the results of which Kern and the rest of the committee appeared to not have been made aware, determining that no free speech violations took place at ASU.
Marsh speculated that the professors didn’t show up because they faced death threats, citing media attention and conservative speaker Charlie Kirk’s Professor Watchlist. Kern said that would be a “lame excuse.” He also pointed out that the professors launched a national campaign and initialized bringing themselves into a bigger spotlight.
“You’re making excuses where we don’t know that’s the case,” said Kern.
Atkinson said that she could provide “dozens, if not hundreds” of students that could testify to experiencing faculty intimidation. She also claimed that Williams told her to avoid booking speakers that were political.
“We allow the speaker but you have to take the consequences,” said Atkinson, reportedly quoting Williams.
Atkinson testified that TV screen ads were removed and flyers were torn down following the Barrett Honors faculty letter. She also said she shared the information for the person responsible on June 13, yet it appears ASU took no action. ASU said they weren’t aware of any advertising for the event pulled.
Additionally, Atkinson testified that Williams pressured her to postpone the event “indefinitely.” She noted that Williams interpreted ASU’s policy of not promoting political campaigns as not allowing political speech at all.
“We were in an environment telling us that this was ‘hate speech,’” said Atkinson.
Atkinson said she was directed by leadership ahead of the event to issue a preliminary warning that the event contained potentially dangerous speech.
Gonzales told Atkinson that hate speech doesn’t qualify as constitutionally protected speech. However, the rules attorney corrected her that the Supreme Court ruled hate speech as protected.
ASU professor Owen Anderson also testified. He said that he’s previously had to get the free speech rights organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIR) involved twice due to faculty attempts to suppress free speech. Anderson also said that faculty have attempted to restrict speech by adding anti-racism and DEI to policy on class content and annual reviews of professors.
“Insults abound, but rational dialogue is rare. What we need are administrators that call these faculty to higher conduct,” said Anderson.
In closing, Kern said he doesn’t trust ASU, the University of Arizona, or ABOR. He argued that ABOR hadn’t issued a real investigation and called their report “typical government fluff [and] garbage.” Kern also called for the firing of Barrett Honors College Dean Tara Williams.
It looks like we struck a nerve at one of the largest universities in the United States. Last week, the Free Enterprise Club published an article on Arizona State University’s (ASU) failure to uphold free speech. The article came in the aftermath of an event held by the T.W. Lewis Center for personal development—a center of the Barrett Honors College—that featured prominent conservative speakers like Robert Kiyosaki, Dennis Prager, and Charlie Kirk.
While the event was allowed to proceed, it faced a campaign from 39 of the 47 faculty from the honors college who tried to shut it down. Then, in the months following the event, the center was not only dissolved, but two staff members lost their jobs. Now, ASU has offered a “fact check” of our article in a desperate attempt to save face. And as you might expect, it’s another swing and miss…
Three of the Arizona State University (ASU) professors behind a campaign to oppose an event featuring conservative speakers argue that only inclusive persons belong on university campuses.
In an opinion piece published in the Arizona Republic, the three professors argue that those who reject inclusive ideals were the real threat to debate and therefore should be barred from participating in democratic exchange. The trio — Barrett Honors College professors Jenny Brian, Michael Ostling, and Alex Young — noted that they weren’t opposed to all conservative speakers, referencing a 2018 event featuring conservative legal scholar Robert George.
Earlier this year, the three professors signed onto a letter petitioning Barrett Honors College leadership to oppose an event featuring conservative personalities Dennis Prager, Charlie Kirk, and Robert Kiyosaki. The trio insisted that their original letter wasn’t an attempt to cancel the event, but merely a means of expressing consternation. AZ Free News learned that on-campus marketing of the controversial event was removed following the complaint letter. 37 of 47 Barrett faculty members signed onto the letter.
“By platforming and legitimating their extreme anti-intellectual and anti-democratic views, Barrett will not be furthering the cause of democratic exchange at ASU, but undermining it in ways that could further marginalize the most vulnerable members of our community,” read the letter. “Our collective efforts to promote Barrett as a home for inclusive excellence demand we distance ourselves from the hate that these provocateurs hope to legitimate by attaching themselves to Barrett’s name.”
In terms of reported attempts to recruit students to boycott the event, the three professors denied the charges. The trio added that they held an alternative “teach in” event preceding the T.W. Lewis Center event: “Defending the Public University.”
The three professors also denied responsibility for the dissolution of the T.W. Lewis Center and dismissal of its executive director, Ann Atkinson.
“As Barrett faculty, we see a brighter future for public higher education. We will continue to fight for a university ‘measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes,’” stated the trio. “The ‘antagonistic cooperation’ of democratic exchange in Arizona’s public universities deserves to be defended against those who reject the inclusive ideals that make it possible.”
The letter was met with immediate response from a vocal critic of the Barrett Honors faculty opposed to the T.W. Lewis Center event: ASU humanities professor Owen Anderson. He criticized the three professors’ opinion piece as a poor display of logic and reason.
“[W]hat was their argument? They never gave one (not one that got above informal fallacies),” wrote Anderson. “No professor would give a good grade to a paper like this from a student. How can a professor who thinks this way teach others?”
Universities are supposed to be the “marketplace of ideas.” With a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), you would think that Arizona State University (ASU) would understand this. But apparently, the school would rather be just another woke university that shuts down free speech. Now, the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development—a center of the Barrett Honors College—and its executive director Ann Atkinson have found out the hard way.
Back in February, Atkinson organized an event on “Health, Wealth, and Happiness” as part of a series from the Lewis Center focused on connecting students with professionals who can offer career and life advice. Speakers for the event included Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, radio talk show host and founder of Prager U Dennis Prager, founder and president of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk, and heart-transplant cardiologist Radha Gopalan. For a university that offers classes on subjects like witchcraft and critical theories of sexuality, this event felt pretty tame by comparison. But the mere mention of these conservative speakers caused more than 75 percent of the Barrett Honors College faculty to have a meltdown…