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Journalism School Rejects Speaker Slated to Talk about Freedom of Speech

December 3, 2017

A public university in Montana refused to host a speaker scheduled to give a talk on freedom of speech.

The University of Montana School of Journalism rejected a proposed talk by Mike Adams, a professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, partly on the grounds his remarks might be interpreted as “hate speech.”

Adams is a popular conservative speaker and an outspoken and colorful writer for the online site Townhall.com. In 2014, Adams won a federal appeals court case against his university after seven years of litigation, successfully arguing he had been refused promotion because of his Townhall articles. Adams also argued his promotion was blocked because of his conversion to Christianity.

Adams was slated to talk about freedom of speech in February 2018 at the tenth anniversary of the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lectures series, an annual event at the school financed by his widow, Maria Cole.

University of Montana School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said on a radio station in Missoula in October 2017, “Maria Cole chose to select someone who is not a journalist. That is my chief and foremost concern. I was also concerned when I looked into some of his writings and public appearances that some of his remarks could be interpreted as homophobic or antifeminist. Some of those remarks could be interpreted as hate speech. So, while he has the constitutional right to make those remarks, the journalism school is not interested in inviting someone like that.”

‘A Golden Opportunity’

The Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture Series has been held at the Missoula school annually for nine years. It is named in honor of the late Jeff Cole, an aviation and space reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Maria Cole, who supports the series financially and has always selected the speaker, told School Reform News for its tenth year, 2018, she wanted to do something special in honor of her husband. Cole learned about Adams through a speakers’ bureau, which provided his background and video clips, and he had multiple points to recommend him, she says.

“This was a golden opportunity to have a speaker at the intersection of law and journalism,” Cole said. “Freedom of speech is the underpinning of all journalism, and I felt like this guy was the right one for this event.”

Slammed for ‘Siding with Christians’

Before arrangements were complete, however, Abramson raised questions about Adams, stating in an email to Cole, “He appears to be siding with Christians in the ‘culture war,’” and, “He also talks about the prevalence of ‘cultural Marxism,’ and exclusively speaks on right wing sites,” a claim Adams denies. “I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students.” Abramson wrote.

“When I told him that Adams would talk about freedom of speech, he said that freedom of speech can be defined in many different ways,” Cole said.

Maria Cole says she hopes to bring Adams to Missoula and possibly even to the University of Montana. After the rejection became a cause célèbre in Missoula, Sheila Stearns, president of the University of Montana, told Cole that Adams would be welcome on campus. It does not look as though the school of journalism will sponsor the talk.

‘Need to Learn to Listen’

George Leef, director of research at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says Abramson’s comments were ill-conceived.

“Regarding the dean’s position, I would say that good journalists need to learn to listen to speakers firsthand and then accurately report their statements,” Leef said. “Whether the dean or anyone else agrees or disagrees with the content of a talk ought to be irrelevant.”

Unwelcome Viewpoints

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a freedom-of-speech watchdog group, says the school failed to uphold a commitment to free speech.

“Whether or not the journalism school had the general right to veto Professor Adams as speaker depends on the way the series was established,” Shibley said. “Certainly, schools and departments, even at public universities, are not required to invite outside speakers. However, public university administrators have an obligation not to disinvite a speaker based on that speaker’s viewpoint. The reported email from Dean Abramson saying, ‘I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students,’ strongly suggests that this may be what happened.” 

Jane S. Shaw (janeshaw5966@gmail.com) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.

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Jane S. Shaw is higher education editor for School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.
janeshaw5966@gmail.com