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Professor Watchlist Draws Criticism from Free Speech Groups

Last week, the conservative group Turning Point USA (TPUSA) launched its Professor Watchlist in order to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” As we noted in response, watchlists created to document people and the views they hold were historically used to punish listees for voicing their opinions—an outcome at odds with free expression.

Now, more free speech groups are condemning the list as antithetical to the free and open exchange of ideas in higher education.  

The Watchlist has drawn the ire of PEN America and Heterodox Academy, two organizations that promote free speech and academic freedom. In a press release, PEN America criticized the Watchlist as “a noxious purveyor of precisely what it claims to deride: the intimidation and ostracization of those who express controversial views on campus.” The group further denounced the list as one of many attempts to “hamper or intimidate free speech on college campuses,” as discussed in their recently released report on free speech at American universities.

Additionally, Heterodox Academy’s executive committee issued a statement “call[ing] on everyone who is concerned about the state of higher education to stop devising ways that members of an academic community can report or punish each other for classroom speech.” According to the group, the Watchlist creates a climate of fear that “deprives everyone of the vigorous debate and disagreement that is essential for learning and scholarship.” By compiling the Watchlist, Heterodox Academy argues that TPUSA discourages unpopular and controversial views on campus when the goal should be “to encourage a variety of voices—heterodox voices—so that bad arguments can be answered with good ones and scholarly ideas can be tested by the strongest minds on both sides.”

As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff told The Chronicle of Higher Education last week, “[w]hether the list ends up having a chilling effect on speech depends on how seriously people take it.” And while TPUSA has the First Amendment right to compile information on professors and their views, the effort “sets off a lot of alarms,” Greg explained to The Independent, “because of our history of blacklists.”

“Maybe a few months ago professors would have laughed it off, but in the current political climate they’re not so sure,” he said. “Certainly in the past we’ve seen cases where academics are threatened, subject to harassment and intimidation.” Greg also suggested that students try talking to professors they disagree with before adding them to a watchlist: “If you have a particular argument with a professor—either they’re not being very professional or you disagree with something in their class, the first thing you should do it bring that up with the professor.”

Greg concluded with an offer of FIRE’s support, stating, “If universities try to punish professors for what is constitutionally protected speech, FIRE stands ready to help and we urge them to get in touch with us straight away.”

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