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`So to Speak Podcast` transcript: Are Ann Coulter's words really 'violence'?

Are Ann Coulter's words really 'violence'?

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Cool. Welcome back, everyone. Before we get started with today’s show, it is the end of the year. This will be our last episode. So, I wanna through a pitch out there. While free speech is free, protecting it isn’t. And the FIRE is, of course, the generous sponsor of this show, The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. So, if you’re looking to give to a non-profit at the end of this year and you care deeply about free speech issues, I’d encourage you to reach into your wallets and send a donation FIRE’s way. We’re trying to build a free speech army, so to speak, as we explore our expanded mission. So, if you’re interested in these issues and you care about this podcast, long-time listeners, maybe you’re just coming to the show, please consider going to to give us your support. Now, let’s get on to the show.

Welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, Nico Perrino. The past couple of episodes, we have talked about things happening in the free speech world off-campus. But today, I have two of my distinguished colleagues from FIRE’s Campus Rights Advocacy Program to talk with me about what is happening on campus. It has been a crazy year. To do that, I’ve Zach Greenburg. He’s a senior program officer in the Campus Rights Advocacy Program. Zach, thanks for being here.

Zach Greenburg: Thanks for having me.

Nico: I also have our fearless leader, Alex Morey. Previously, in the communications department with me. Now, the director of Campus Rights Advocacy. And both of you had been previous guests on the show. Alex, welcome back.

Alex Morey: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Nico: So, tell me a little bit about this year. My understanding is it’s been a record-setting year for FIRE letters to campus administrations.

Alex: We are breaking our letter record to campus administrators this year. I think the previous record was somewhere around 200. We’re trending towards 205, 210, just cranking them out and getting them out the door because there are so many things going on still in the campus rights space, even though we expanded to other things.

Nico: Yeah. Keeping you guys busy. You were telling me and some of our colleagues off camera that DEI statements and sort of issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion have become kind of a trend and have become prominent in the work that you guys are doing. And what does that mean?

Alex: Yeah. I mean, they went from 0 to 60. A few years ago, we had not heard of these DEI problems where faculty are coming to us saying to get hired, to get tenure, to get promoted, the administration or my department is telling me that I have to say that I agree with their views on diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI.

Nico: Did they define what these terms mean?

Alex: Frequently, no.

Zach: No. No.

Alex: I think we all sort of have an understanding of what people are talking about these days when they’re talking about equity, diversity, and inclusion. But, of course, some of the faculty we talk to are not they’re not just old White guys that hate diversity. We’re talking about people who maybe study race or gender discrimination. And they have incredibly nuanced views that maybe don’t align with the University. And they don’t wanna have to change their syllabi. They don’t wanna have to write a statement about how they’re comporting with some administrator’s vision of DEI when they have their own vision of DEI. So, that has seen a huge spike this year.

Nico: Do you have a percentage by chance?

Alex: Right now, it’s 7.8 percent of our cases. But over the year, it’s been hovering at about 10% percent. And that’s up from zero percent in the last few years. This came on the radar like gangbusters.

Zach: Yeah.

Alex: And now it’s here to stay, I think.

Zach: These cases were pretty much non-existent before the George Floyd murder in May of 2022. And that created an explosion.

Nico: 2020.

Zach: 2020, excuse me. And that created an explosion of these cases where we’re seeing all these universities imposed these really vague requirements on faculty hiring, promotion, tenure, and their livelihoods based on the commitment to DEI. And these terms are not very well defined. The faculty came to FIRE saying, “Hey. I’m discriminated against based on my views. How do I help myself and help preserve this campus of free expression?”

Alex: And we should be really clear that FIRE takes no position on, just like anything, we don’t – if we’re defending someone with certain political views, that doesn’t mean we agree with those views. We don’t say that DEI is good or bad, or frequently they’re not defined, so we can’t really say one way or the other. But all we’re saying is that faculty have the academic freedom and the expressive right to not be compelled to state that they have views that they don’t have or to change their syllabi. Or to say that they love DEI so that they can get promoted or get tenured.

Zach: So, I mean, is the issue that they function essentially as political litmus tests.

Alex: Exactly.

Nico: These issues, DEI issues, tend to rate toward one side of the political spectrum. Right? I remember you mentioned the George Floyd protest. After those protests, a lot of college campuses started creating these anti-racism committees.

Zach: Right. Yeah.

Nico: Right? Anti-racism is an ideology. It takes a certain perspective on how racism functions in society. And out of that came a lot of these recommendations for including diversity, equity, and inclusion in tenure, and promotion, and hiring processes. So, there are a lot of faculty; there are a lot of people in America who disagree with the idea surrounding anti-racism. These ideas motivate DEI. And they’re using these essentially as a screen, right, for certain faculty. I mean, that’s how they function.

Zach: They are. Yeah. And this is not a new issue. We’re talking about going back to the 1960s. Right? Where there were bans on faculty belonging to any organization that advocates for the overthrow of the U.S. government that were treasonous, and they’re seditious and targeted towards Communists, obviously, after the Second Red Scare. And so, this whole issue of universities having this litmus test for faculty, it’s really not a new one. And we’re seeing kind of DEI being the [inaudible] [00:06:04] of the day. Right? There was this issue that’s being advocated for and censored and whatnot. And so, we have these faculty members who are just trying to get into a university, trying to have their ideas and become members of that committee and unable to do so because of their political views.

Nico: But faculty, alright. So, you teach students. Right? And you need to make sure you’re having an inclusive environment in your classroom. You care about diversity and perhaps all of its permutations. Are these things that universities shouldn’t care about in hiring?

Zach: They absolutely should. I think universities should care about faculty being confident in their subject matter, treating students with respect, not to discriminate against them based on their viewpoints or their race, ethnicity, and stuff like that. But we’re really talking about universities conforming to administrators' views on what the correct political viewpoints should be. And a lot of these hiring committees of faculty are actually administrators in our faculty. They’re people who don’t really have a subject matter expertise in what they’re trying to hire for. And that creates this orthodox in the universities where have administrators imposing their viewpoints on incoming faculty.

Nico: Well, equity, perhaps of those three categories, is the most ideologically loaded. Right? It's different from equality. Let’s treat everyone similarly. It says while certain people are disadvantaged, right, and they need to get preference or additional resources to kind of level the playing field. And that’s – and whether you agree with that argument or not, it is a controversial argument in how it should be applied.

Zach: Right.

Nico: It’s something that’s a matter for debate. But you see these being motivated by anti-racism, which places a great emphasis on equity. You can see how this could quote the Supreme Court cast a poll of orthodoxy on campus. This is just me thinking out loud here. If you were trying to create orthodoxy on campus, if you were trying to remove a certain viewpoint from the profesora, I can’t really think of a better way to do it.

Alex: Than saying only people who agree with us get in the door.

Nico: Yeah. Because hiring, as we know from all the biased studies that have been done throughout history. Discriminatory hiring based on race on sex. Hiring can be a black box. You don’t know why someone doesn’t get hired. So, you require these diversity, equity, inclusion statements, which you can pretty accurately predict someone’s political beliefs, perhaps, if they respond honestly to those statements. And so, you see the statement that perhaps is coming from the Conservative, or the Libertarian, or the DEI skeptic, and you can just toss that one out the door without ever having a paper trail or ever having to justify why you did it. Right?

Alex: That’s really troubling.

Nico: But at the same time, universities can hire for holistic criteria of issues. And so, there’s often another justification you can make for why this person didn’t get hired. And universities have sort of the freedom to make those sorts of hiring choices so long as it’s not for a discriminatory reason, which, as we know, is – so, you can’t just outright ban the requirement, or the option for these universities to administer the DEI statements either because that would itself perhaps be unconstitutional.

Zach: Yeah. It’s really tricky here because you’re hired in the black box. Universities do have their own speech rights to determine their associations. Who they wanna bring in the university, who to hire, which students to admit, stuff like that. But when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’re seeing these issues being hinged towards the traditional, I guess, progressive views about race, ethnicity, background, stuff like that. Bowling Green’s a perfect example of this, where their rubric they have DEI. They say that the faculty member actually gets marked down for speaking about diversity only in terms of different perspectives or as a study. But do not discuss identity. So, it’s a really powerful movement here about diversity, not in terms of ideology, but in terms of your background, your ethnicity, and your race.

Alex: Yeah. You can’t say I’m contributing to diversity because I’m a Conservative. And there’s not very many Conservatives on this campus. That doesn’t count.

Zach: There’s no Trump supporters here for a diverse political candidate. They’re like [inaudible] [00:10:35].

Alex: Yeah. They’re like, “Not kind of diversity. We mean a very specific thing.”

Nico: Which is interesting because when you talk about people from different backgrounds, racial backgrounds, different sexes, different sexual orientations, you talk about that diversity and the value that comes from that because they have different perspectives on things. Right? They have different life experiences. But you say the viewpoint diversity, which is born out kind of those kinds of personal characteristics sometimes, is invaluable. And I’m glad you bring that up, Zach, because FIRE has a research team.

Zach: Yeah. We do.

Nico: And prior to this podcast, I reached out to them to see what sort of research they have. And breaking some news on this podcast. Nathan Honeycutt, who’s a new addition to the research team here at FIRE, has done some extensive research on diversity, equity, inclusion statements and how they are used within the faculty hiring and promotion process. He did a study. He did seven different studies featuring 3,878 faculty participants at U.S. colleges and universities. And it found that faculty who wrote DEI statements that focused on viewpoint diversity were rated much lower than those who wrote statements that were based on sort of issues of race or gender.

Zach: Interesting.

Nico: Yeah. He says the evaluation penalty was more severe toward DEI statements discussing viewpoint diversity but is also a consequence for statements that focused on rural diversity and socioeconomic diversity. Treating the DEI statements, he writes as an initial screening device, 51.6 percent of faculty who evaluated the viewpoint diversity statement recommended that the applicant not be advanced for further review. Thirty-five percent would not advance the writer of the socioeconomic diversity statement, and 42 for the rural diversity statement. That’s compared to 9 to 20% for the various egalitarian DEI statements because that is the race and the gender issue. So, if you have faculty sitting on the committees reviewing these DEI statements, it’s very clear from the research that faculty are gonna rate people lower, as you say, for expressing interest in viewpoint diversity issues, which is probably gonna rate more toward the Conservative or Libertarian side of this perspective.

Alex: Yeah. They don’t mean to point toward diversity. They mean is someone from an unrepresented ratio minority or an unrepresented gender or sexuality. That’s what they’re really looking for, and that’s what we’re hearing from faculty.

Nico: But they don’t say that.

Alex: They don’t say that. And we are always looking for –

Nico: Because that would be essentially like a litmus test. We have this opinion about DEI, and do you agree with it?

Zach: Yeah. Exactly.

Nico: And if you descend from it, over half of your statements are gonna get thrown out before it goes further into the review process.

Zach: Yeah. You can’t get a job here. You can’t work at this university.

Alex: And who loses is the students. I really think that students should be seeking out faculty who have views that are different from their own or to engage in conversations around – I mean, I think every university administrator, if you said, “What are the most important issues of our day?” They would say stuff like race, and class, and gender, gender identity, sexuality. And they are taking away students' opportunity to confront maybe faculty with different views than them. Or faculty who would bring speakers to campus who have nuanced views or divergent views. And that helps students solidify their own views even if they disagree with these faculty members, or professors, or speakers. And it also helps students understand that they can engage with these other viewpoints without fear. They can have these discussions, and it doesn’t necessarily – we have a lot of talk about what’s harming students these days. They can have those discussions.

Zach: And that could change around faculty. Right? You have these faculty who all think the same exact way, and that creates a department, say your economics department or your [inaudible] [00:14:56] department, that only has very narrow viewpoints on what should be a broad area of study. And if you’re a student in these departments, and you’re trying to get your Ph.D., your master’s, just wanna get your major there, you may feel chilled in your expression of going out there and talking about having these broad range discussions that universities should be inspiring. It should be encouraging. That won’t be happening because of these very idea logistically narrow limited faculty.

Nico: Yeah. I mean, there are some colleges and universities that kind of build their departments around a certain perspective on the issues. You think the University of Chicago, the Chicago School and Economics. Or you think George Mason, for example, and its Libertarian perspective not just on economics but also law. The problem becomes, and that can be a problem, too, especially if you believe in sort of debate across lines of difference being a better way to kind of arrive at truth and understanding. But it becomes especially a problem when all the departments across the country where most departments with the country have that same perspective. The University of Chicago School of Economics was a minority perspective. George Mason is notable because of his diversion perspective on some of these issues. You mentioned the Bowling Green issue. I also have here you guys currently have letters out to San Diego State University and some of its required DEI statements. There’s also the University of Illinois.

My home state has one as well. It’s not going away.

Zach: Not going away.

Nico: I mean, at the rate it’s going, almost every college and university, I think, is gonna adopt one of these sort of DEI statements.

Alex: For sure.

Nico: It’s just a question of how bad it is. Right? Optional statements aren’t as bad as required statements, but then optional statements can function in the same sort of screening way that required ones can. Right? It’s like if you don’t submit the optional statement, you’re probably gonna get screened out fairly quickly.

Zach: And we do with some of these cases, the Bowling Green, for example. The [inaudible] [00:16:52] General Council University, and she agreed with us pretty in much in full. And she offered to revise the statements to now allow ideological diversity for its faculty. And it says right there in the statement. It says, “If you apply to this school with a DEI statement, you will not be discriminated against based on your views,” which is great. Let’s do that.

Nico: You hope.

Zach: And to be hope, that’s the best we can do. Right?

Alex: We’re watching.

Zach: Like you said, it’s a black box. Nobody knows how all of this is made, but just having that statement on the application saying that your views will not be discriminated against that goes a long way.

Nico: Yeah. I wanna move now to talk about another trend in the campus world involving disinvitations. Alright. Zach, I think are you still the keeper of our disinvitation database?

Zach: I used to be. I passed it off to researchers like you mentioned. We hired them now. They’re great. Doing a wonderful job.

Nico: Yeah. Do we know where this year sits on kind of the – I didn’t have a chance to look at the database before we jumped on here. But sort of sits on the trendline since we’ve started tracking.

Alex: Yeah. Oh, go ahead.

Zach: No, please.

Alex: We are up significantly. This year I was talking to Zach earlier about how several years ago, for a long time it was at commencement time when we were watching disinvitations happen, Condoleezza Rice would get invited, and some students would say, “We don’t like her views on ‘X’ or Mr. Rogers,” or I think the Dalai Lama.

Zach: Dalai Lama, yeah.

Alex: We’ve had all across –

Nico: Many universities just stopped inviting anyone who was interesting to give their commencement addresses.

Alex: That’s exactly –

Nico: To make them as bland and boring as possible.

Zach: It’s terrible for the students to wanna hear the best speakers, and then they have someone else.

Alex: Exactly right. And it was sort of the kind of thing where if you had any view that had ever been controversial, we’re gonna fight you on the speaker. Now, the disinvitations seem to be on an uptick even since last year. The year before, we were at 20. Then 28. Now, we’re in the 30s because students are protesting predominantly Conservative views on campus.

Zach: Right. Yeah.

Alex: I just read a blog post from James Jordan, who’s in our Litigation Department, which is excellent. Let me see. Do I have – did I print it out? Yes. It does. He says, “UC Davis feces-flingers lose their shit over movie screening.” Subhead is, “As a public institution, the university cannot tolerate this crap.” Long story short, on November 29th, several chapters of the Sacramento area, Turning Point USA student groups met on UC Davis’s campus to watch a screening of the controversial documentary “What is a Woman?” And then, roughly 30 minutes into the screening –

Alex: The doors open.

Nico: The doors swung open. Two black-clad figures rushed in and then threw manure into the room. And then, I guess one of the student organizers tried to chase them. And then, the black-clad ninja figures, I don’t know, TPUSA, whatever you wanna call them, pepper-sprayed him.

Zach: They did. They did.

Nico: But clearly an effort to shut down the screening of this movie.

Alex: And there’s certainly been – I mean, for me, that’s been the most striking thing this year as we’re closing out the year and we’re looking back is the uptick and an appetite for violence, like violent protests. We had the situation at Penn State. There’s been some situations at the University of New Mexico this year. There was Cornell with Ann Coulter.

Zach: Dartmouth.

Alex: Dartmouth. And you know a number of – so, this is the kind of stuff that used to happen once a year or once every couple of years we’d have a situation where, “Oh, no. Someone’s violently disrupting the speech,” or is physically attacking someone. And it was a huge deal. And now, it was once a month in maybe the last, maybe even more, every week.

Zach: Every week, almost this semester, a new case like this.

Alex: Yeah.

Nico: So, you were talking about kind of the harm or trauma justifications for censorship, or you at least made reference to it earlier, Alex. If you believe speech is violence, it makes you feel justified in using actual physical violence to stop that speech. Right? I was struck at the November 9th Cornell University speech from Ann Coulter, who is an alumnus of Cornell University and who had spoken at the school many times before. Two or three times. It is Cornell University, right? It’s not college?

Zach: Yeah. It’s college.

Nico: I always sometimes get confused.

Alex: There is a Cornell College because that’s a different one.

Nico: Yeah. Right. And Zach, you did a great Tik Tok video where you broke down kind of the disruptions that were happening at Cornell. And to Cornell’s credit, they had police on hand.

Zach: They did.

Nico: And when student disrupters stood up and tried to shut down the event, the police came in and tried to remove those disrupters. But, then, as soon as one was removed, another one would stand up and try and shut it down. And then, another one after that one. It was like, how long can you play whackable?

Zach: Yeah. It was coordinated by disrupters. The disrupters get up there, scream and shout, be warned by the administrators. Police would come in, escort them throughout the event. It was like 10 or 20 minutes or so.

Nico: And the reason I bring this up in the context of violence is because one of the student protestors said when they stood up to shut down the event, “We don’t want you here. Your words are violence.” Right? Now, correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t think any violence, physical violence, was actually – I mean, they were just trying to muscle the event from going forward but not by attacking someone, not in violence. Just sort of kind of like mob tactics in order to shut it down.

Zach: Just a shout-down, essentially.

Nico: Yeah. But at Penn State – and they were successful. After 30 minutes, Ann Coulter just gave up and left the stage. And I think Cornell’s administration did issue a kind of statement lamenting what was happening. And there’s gonna be student disciplinary charges against the students who were involved.

Zach: They did, which is the right thing to do.

Alex: And, of course, you know, we would never – we always encourage students to protest peacefully. If they disagree with Ann Coulter. They can protest outside. They can engage with her during the Q&A. But you can’t be censoring her. That is not free speech.

Nico: Yeah. Well, at Penn State, we did have some. So, okay, background here. October 24th, Gavin McInnes, who’s one of the founders of Proud Boys and also a founder of VICE, if I’m not mistaken, was set to speak at Penn State alongside comedian Alex Stein. It was billed as a comedy event. Both of them are controversial figures. Penn State kind of knew this would be a controversial event. There were gonna be protests. There were some demands that the event be shut down. They learned this rodeo previously. I think Lions Monopoly previously spoke at this school.

But outside of the event as it’s about to occur, Alex Stein comes out and kind of heckles some of the protestors. And then there were two or three isolated incidences of violence, I think Alex Stein got a spin on. There was also a pepper spray incident. And the university essentially jumped at this as an opportunity to say, “Oh, no. This speech is gonna result in violence, and we have to shut it down.” Right? And for our listeners who aren’t kind of familiar with the First Amendment world. To the extent the government can’t prevent violence from occurring and use less restrictive means than shutting down the event, they can shut down some of these events, but they need to take every effort possible to not create on the exercise of the First Amendment right before they go to that extreme and final step.

Alex: And we could see on the video. They didn’t. You can see in the pepper spray incident there are literally two armed police officers that just stand there and watch. They don’t – what’s the point of calling out the calvary if you don’t – literally, many of them were sitting on horses watching Alex Stein get spat on or whatever. And Penn State has a multi-billion-dollar endowment. So, they cannot – and they were there. They just didn’t do anything. And Penn has been going tit for tat, “Oh, well, we did the best we could.” We’ve got it on video.

Nico: I worked with Aaron and Chris, who are standing behind the cameras here right now, on a documentary about the ACLU’s defense of the free speech rights when they wanted to rally. Neo-Nazis wanted to rally in Skokie, Illinois, a home to 6,000 holocaust survivors. I saw what the police can and should do to prevent violence from occurring in probably one of the most hostile environments possible.

Zach: Oh, yeah.

Nico: You got Gavin McInnes. You got Alex Stein. You got people spitting on each other. The police can handle – if they want to handle that.

Zach: They can handle it.

Nico: But they clearly were looking for any justification to shut down the event. And violence is usually the best crutch that they can lean on if they want to. And so, they find these, a little bit spital called Alex Stein. And I don’t begrudge that either, especially in our era of Coronavirus where we’re very concerned about germs or pepper spray, to just say, “You know what? We’re – the first amendment be damned. The right to free expression in America be damned.” And they teach the wrong lesson to would-be censors.

Zach: They do. They do.

Nico: Spray a little pepper spray, spit a little, and you can get an event shut down.

Alex: And it was very interesting, too, because I think the spitter was sort of on the side of many of the protestors against the event. Whereas the pepper sprayer allegedly, we couldn’t really tell, maybe was affiliated with a Proud Boy situation.

Zach: Yeah. No one knows.

Alex: We don’t know. But what was really interesting is by shutting this event, they also shut down the protest. So, it wasn’t just Alex Stein and his brethren Gavin McInnes who lost here. It was the students who came out to protest. They weren’t allowed to continue talking about why they disagreed with that event. So, it’s not just us saying, “Oh, the show should have gone on.” The protest should have gone on, too.

Zach: Yeah. There are people there that wanna listen to speakers talk. They wanted to get out there and protest. And Penn State, with taxpayer money, says, “No. There’s not going to be an audience if we can’t protect the people. We cannot allow the speech to go on and listen to this entire thing and ruin the party for everybody.” And that’s not okay. It’s not how a person provides. It’s not what the law provides.

Nico: Well, I think, Alex, did you write a letter to Penn State on this?

Alex: I think so.

Nico: There were 205 of them.

Alex: Like I’ve said, we’ve written 200 letters this year.

Zach: I think you did. You and Grant.

Alex: That’s right. That’s right. Yes. I did.

Nico: Well, the letter, I think, kind of encapsulates our sentiments well. It says, “Students will walk away from Monday night with a message about what it means to express themselves on Penn State’s Campus.” The students who peacefully protested were being assaulted while police stood by and watched. And that those who threatened violence have ultimate over which ideas are allowed at Penn State. Sort of the moral hazard behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. And at Penn State, the behavior that gets rewarded if you want the event to be shut down is to use violence or use mob-like tactics in order to shut down the event. And that’s what exactly what happened. I want to turn next to Emerson College. Long in the news, long been a pain in the side of FIRE, long been a cause for concern. What’s happening at Emerson?

Alex: Fifteen months, by the way, it has been since –

Nico: Alex hasn’t been counting. Get her some pages for her calendar.

Alex: Well, we always try – we always want to, at the end of the year, we look and try to close out these cases. And we go, “God, is Emerson still going on?” They do not like TPUSA at Emerson. The student group TPUSA, Turning Point USA, they have – it all started last year when these students, FIRE news desk readers will remember that these were the students who passed out the CHINA KINDA SUS stickers as a sort of amongst us reference to criticize the Chinese government and what TPUSA says are oppressive tactics, etc. This caused dramatic controversy because many students said it was in – they –

Nico: Not the students. William P. Gilligan, the President of Emerson College, sent out a community-wide email in which he accused the student group of anti-Asian bigotry and hate for these CHINA KINDA SUS stickers.

Alex: And this was on the heels of COVID where there had been nationwide this sort of this uptick in anti-Asian sentiment or hate crimes or whatever. And I think this was just a complete overreaction to these stupid stickers.

Nico: And the vice president of the group Kjersten Lynum is herself Asian. So, it was –

Zach: Yeah. Makes no sense at all.

Nico: No. It doesn’t make any sense at all. I think they were trying to hold water for the Chinese government, or there were people on campus who tried to try and shoehorn – because they don’t like TPUSA, they shoehorn the argument because nobody likes hate. Nobody like bias to cast this as sort of like anti-Chinese people, which by all accounts was not intended to do, but the university ultimately found the group violating Emerson’s bias-related behavior policy. Issued a formal warning. And the group is effectively shut down on campus because they can’t find an advisor. And they need an advisor to be a registered student organization to host events, to promote those events. So, they essentially – the president here made the group an outcast. Put the thumb on the scale against the group. Told everyone these people are bigots. Surprise, surprise.

You can’t find a faculty advisor now to sponsor you. I was supposed to speak there in March, by the way, and was told by Sam Neves, who’s the president of the informal TPUSA group now, that they can’t host the event anymore because they can’t host it on campus. And they can’t promote it because they’re not a registered student organization.

Zach: They can’t get funding. They can’t function as a group on campus. And that’s a shame because it’s all over a sticker. Right? One sticker to CHINA KINDA SUS. That’s what it said. Obviously, presented the Chinese Communist party for their many abuses of human rights. And because of that, this group is banned on campus. They’re not there anymore. They’re gone. And TPUSA students are trying to find a group to discuss their viewpoints and have nowhere to go now because this group is gone.

Nico: No. They even tried to in October host a documentary screening that was put together by CBS news kind of about their trivials at Emerson. And they were prevented from doing that because the administrator who’s required to approve these prior reviews, prior restraints, that old discussion. Put that aside, but the administrator alleged factual inaccuracies about the piece. So, they’re using the fake news justification.

Alex: And this is CBS. This is not a super right-wing publication or anything like that.

Zach: [Inaudible] [00:31:57] groups at Emerson are not going through this rigamarole of prior review before they host documentaries to see if they’re also, in fact, factually accurate or not.

Nico: No. No. They’re not. And the problem here is, right, for us, this is a school that promises free expression, but it’s also a private university, so your legal options are limited. But IRDP or I shouldn’t say IRDP. That was the old name of the Campus Rights Advocacy Department, Individual Rights Defense Program, before we expanded our mission.

Alex: Now, we just spend lots of different kinds of individuals off campus and on. And so, now we have –

Nico: But one of the tools in your toolboxes is to file an accreditor. Right? Because the accreditors have requirements for schools, they accredit that they protect free speech and academic freedom rights. And concerned citizens can file complaints when universities do not live up to those promises. So, what happened there?

Alex: So, we are concerned citizens. Well, first, I wanna outline first what Campus Rights Advocacy, formerly IRDP. For the last 15 months, we have been trying to work this out with Emerson. We have been trying to get them to see reason. We’ve written multiple letters. We said, “Look, here, your policies are incredibly clear. Here step-by-step is how you violated them.” When that didn’t work, we did a gorilla marketing campaign on the streets of Boston.

Zach: I wanna say the Emerson CHINA KINDA SUS truck.

Alex: We did the Emerson –

Nico: They hated that. They hated that.

Zach: That was so great.

Nico: If the student newspaper keeps asking us if we’re gonna bring the truck back. So, for our listeners who don’t know, and Aaron, maybe you can cut in a picture of the truck for folks viewing this on YouTube. We decided after Emerson wouldn’t back down to park a big LED billboard truck in front of the administration building that says, “EMERSON KINDA SUS,” and encouraged people –

Alex: Text a number to get more information. It would take them to our website. We had EMERSON KINDA or something like that.

Zach: We did. Marketing stunts –

Nico: We bought ads on the Boston Tea.

Alex: Yeah.

Zach: Oh, yeah.

Nico: They hated that, but they still haven’t backed down. So, –

Alex: So, when schools don’t listen to FIRE, we don’t give up. So, as one of our more extreme measures that we sometimes take when schools, particularly private schools, are not listening to us and we can’t – we don’t sue them. We just let their accreditor know that this institution is not meeting the standards for, like in this case, the New England Commission of Higher Education requires that colleges like Emerson provide free speech, basically. And so, we’re saying, “Look. Here are these students trying to engage in free speech. We’ve got 15 months' worth of evidence that this isn’t happening. They’re clearly engaging in viewpoint discrimination against these students. We need you to take action.” And just earlier this week, we heard from the Commission that they are indeed investigating. So, accreditation has to mean something. When students choose Emerson over Bumble Munch College or whatever that’s not accredited, they see these standards and say, “Okay. This is a school that’s gonna provide me with a meaningful education.”

And so, accreditors have to enforce these.

Zach: It’s about the issue of integrity. Right? They have this policy. Emerson said in this policy that if you come here, we will give you free speech. We will provide you first amendment rights with a public school. If you go to school, and you pay tuition, and don’t get many classes. You go to the dining hall. You pay for your apple. They don’t give any food. You’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to universities.

And so, we are happy to say it’s been our complaint the accreditation body is doing something. They’re investigating. Hopefully, we’ll see, and if we are lucky, or if we are fortunate, the accreditation body will say, “Hey, Emerson, your policies say this. Please do this. Deliver on what you promised your students.”

Nico: Yeah. Truth in advertising. Chris, are we good on that camera? Okay. Okay.

Alex: We also told the Board of Trustees, too, in case they weren’t aware. In case they didn’t see the truck going by.

Zach: Yeah. They didn’t see the truck, maybe.

Alex: We wanna make sure.

Nico: Well, one of the things you find. I know there was a time when we often did send our letters to Boards of Trustees. We did that here at Emerson, but often the Boards don’t actually know the day-to-day workings at these colleges. And also are sometimes more ideologically diverse than the administrations at some of these colleges. And are, in fact, the governing body of these colleges and universities. So, sometimes, letting them know is a worthwhile enterprise because you can sometimes spur action there in a way you can’t with the administration. Kind of as a final note before we sign off on the Emerson stuff. We are seeing crackdowns on speakers who are criticizing the Chinese government. Not just at Emerson. Like here, we have the administration doing it. But we had two issues at George Washington University this year where students were trying – presumably, students in some cases were trying to post anti-CCP, anti-Chinese Communist Party flyers around campus.

And the first case to kind of protest human rights abuse surrounding the Beijing Olympics. And most recently, just a kind of general protest of human rights abuses in China. In the first case, the president –

Alex: The president is, “We’re gonna find out who did this.” And were, “What!” You’re trying to unmask these anonymous speakers. Are you –

Nico: Well, it’s dangerous, too, because criticism of the CCP, if you’re a Chinese national, is illegal and can result in serious punishment, not just for you but also for your family.

Zach: Your friends, your family, everyone you know.

Nico: So, the president of George Washington, and to his credit, he realized very quickly that was a stupid fucking idea and backed down. But he initially said he was gonna – to the students complaining that he was gonna investigate and try to unmask the students that were posting these Chinese protests, these protest flyers of the Chinese government. Right? I think something like that happened recently where flyers critical of the Chinese Communist party were torn down across GW’s campus. I believe FIRE wrote a letter and said, “We need to do more to protect free expression at GW.”

Zach: It sounds defining here. This guy is sitting in his office in D.C., to America, saying that these students cannot criticize the Chinese Communist Party, which is egregious. Right? This is America, for Christ’s sake.

Alex: It just goes to show just how scared administrators are whenever this kind of controversy, whenever students complain about anything, they – this is very frequently, toss their common sense out the window and say, “I’m gonna investigate. I’m gonna make this right,” whatever without even considering, “What the hell is happening here? Let me take a look. Let me be the adult in the room.” Certainly, when there’s discrimination, when there’s harassment, those policies are already on the books at all these schools. If actual discrimination, if actual harassment is happening, administrations should take action against that. But it’s these squishy, “Someone said something I didn’t like. And it made me feel this sort of way.” And then administrators are saying, “I’m gonna launch a full-scale investigation.” It’s that kind of stuff that is coming up for us a lot these days and certainly in the China situation. It just underscores – the consequences are so much higher in that case.

Zach: Like Emerson, you have stickers, right, of a cartoon.

Alex: Yeah.

Zach: And then George Washington, you have posters, which are mostly tiny. I’m surprised you can even read about your rights abuses. So, it’s like, not even talking about conduct here. You’re talking about just literal pamphlets with writing on them on the wall. The university is saying, “This can’t be allowed. Absolutely not.”

Nico: Yeah. For political speech. You guys see the story go across the news desk this morning for our listeners' news desk. It’s kind of our internal news service where we monitor the issues happening on and off campus related to our mission. But Berkley College of Music speaking of Boston Berkley College of Music is in Boston. Apparently, a student at that college was stalking and threatening someone. I don’t know if it was a student who was posting flyers critical of the CCP. Allegedly told the student that they would chop off his hands if he kept posting the flyers. But more concerningly perhaps is the fact that this student who is charged with stalking reported allegedly this activity to the Chinese Police Service or the Chinese –

Alex: Yeah. Threatened his family. Said the security service is gonna be there to greet your family. Like, holy hell.

Nico: Yeah. All for posting flyers.

Alex: Oh, my God.

Nico: But, yeah, the Department of Justice, I think the District Attorney for that area of Massachusetts, arrested the student or charged the student with stalking. I believe Berkley College of Music suspended the student. But it just goes to show, I mean, the stakes are high when you’re a foreign student who lives under an authoritarian government at home. You have the full freedom to express yourself here in the United States, but doing so can risk retribution back home. And apparently, China has eyes and ears here in the United States willing to outsource that censorship so that it can occur here in the United States, too. Very scary stuff.

Zach: And the great part about these flyers is that they’re posted anonymously, which, obviously, is because of the retribution they can face back home. It’s these efforts by administrators and private individuals to unmask these protestors that are really detrimental to free speech.

Alex: Yeah. Anonymous speech is protected speech, and this China situation goes to show how important it can be when you are facing threats from governments that don’t have a first amendment.

Nico: I wanna turn now, kind of, for the final topic of our conversation to Tennessee Tech.

Zach: Graceful.

Nico: Yeah. Zach, you recently wrote a blog post about a court decision relating to two professors. Well, three professors. Two professors on one side of the issue. One professor on the other side of the issue. They kind of turned the concept of freedom of expression, freedom of speech on its head. Can you talk a little bit about that case?

Zach: Sure. Just baseline Tennessee Tech., right, public school bound by the first amendment, bound by State law to not punish speech that maybe, I think, it’s offensive, unwise, uncivil, and, of course, by their old policies to not do this. And so, to spite all these for free speech, they have punished two professors for posting a Parity Game Room flyer. Another professor seemingly because he asked the professor for his insight into the issue for advising. TPUSA chapter is bringing a full circle here.

Nico: And this was also a – the person they’re criticizing, it’s not just a professor. They’re a local county commissioner as well. It’s no politician of sorts.

Zach: It’s true. Local dog catcher. Yeah. Some low-level position. And so, FIRE was unsuccessful. We were not able to get the punishment rescinded. So, they got an attorney. And they sued. And the Federal District Court –

Nico: The faculty sued.

Zach: The faculty sued. And the Federal District Court said that it was the flyer that really bothered people’s free speech rights, not the punishment of the professors for the flyer. But the flyer itself cut against the ideas on campus because they called this professor and this local government figure a racist. And that –

Alex: The court was wrong here. I think we could say definitively with all due respect to the judiciary. This is a terrible decision.

Zach: It was so bazaar. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen –

Alex: They said you didn’t censor this guy enough in that harmed free speech on campus.

Zach: Should have censored it more. That would have been a better thing for free speech on campus.

Alex: Our collective jaws were sort of like dropped when that decision came out.

Zach: Yeah. Yeah. Professors, as government employees, have the right to speak as partisan by public concern, like posting flyers criticizing government figures for being racist, very much with free speech rights. The university said, “No. You can’t do this. Not okay. You deserve the punishment.” It was reasonable for punishing them because they had this free speech policy that protects civil, uncivil, and effects of speech.

Alex: And we do often see – we talked before about sort of these squishy biases policies that administrators can abuse to say, “Oh, that’s biases. Oh, that’s biases. That’s biases.” Same with incivility or respectability policies where they can sort of call anything they don’t like uncivil. And say, “Oh, you violated our incivility policy. Oh, you disagree with me, incivility policy violation.” So, –

Zach: My favorite part was – the court was like, “What is the harm here the university’s trying to show here?” And the court was saying that the professor was so hard in front of Fox News the next day. That’s the harm he was. They felt so threatened he went on national cable TV and said, “Look how threatened I am.” And I’m like, well, that doesn’t seem to be a justification to override someone’s corporate legal speech rights, but I’m not a federal judge, so –

Alex: Do we know if the professors are gonna appeal or not?

Zach: Yes. They’re trying to appeal.

Alex: Yes. Alright. Good.

Nico: You have to imagine, at the appellant level, a plurality of judges will – reasonable heads will prevail on this one.

Zach: Hopefully. Hopefully. Yeah. Crazy case.

Alex: Dear God.

Nico: Right. You almost have to appeal. You can’t let that stand. This is also – we talked early in the podcast about TPUSA at Emerson. We talked about TPUSA, right, at Penn State. That was TPUSA at Penn State, right?

Alex: Well, at Penn State, it was – was Penn State – I know – I don’t know, was it TPUSA that – all of our cases are TPUSA except for the Drag Show we’re gonna talk about.

Zach: The Drag Show is not TPUSA. Yeah.

Alex: It’s not always just TPUSA.

Nico: But in one case, we’re defending the rights of TPUSA and their express rights. And the other case, we’re defending the right for people to criticize TPUSA.

Zach: Exactly. Exactly.

Alex: See. We’re non-partisan. I’m gonna get it tattooed on my forehead. At FIRE, we’re non-partisan. Talk to me about how non-partisan we are.

Nico: That’s commitment. But there’s another issue at Tennessee Tech. Right? Involving the first amendment.

Alex: Yes.

Zach: There is. Somehow worse than the first issue.

Alex: But not involving TPUSA.

Nico: So, in August, a local eligible DPQ Rights Advocacy Organization partnered with two student organizations to host a Drag Show at Tennessee Technological University’s Backdoor Playhouse. I was – never mind. Is that its actual name?

Zach: Yeah.

Alex: No comment on that one. We have not done the factual fact-gathering there.

Nico: Yeah. I think, yeah. Anyway, they hosted this. And there was a video that was taken at the Drag Show spliced together featuring a performer on stage. I guess children were there giving this performer fake or real money. I don’t know. Offended the sensibilities of some in the community, but this was a voluntary event. Presumably, the parent – the children didn’t get there on their own. Their parents brought them. We all have the right to associate around whatever sort of events or interests we have. Nevertheless, the president punished the student group for hosting this.

They can host no more events. They said that – the president that they were disturbed and dismayed by the Drag Show and later claimed it didn’t represent Tennessee Tech.’s values. The band on groups hosting campus events remains in effect. Violation of free speech and they’re upholding of decency in America.

Zach: Yeah. Right. This is the classic case of an administrator because he’s personally offended by the groups is punishing them by not allowing them to host any kinds of [inaudible] [00:48:00], including through the next semester. And so, think about it, you have an administrator saying offended because the group was disparaging and mocked any religious group. Right? What censor is this that the student groups can’t mock religious groups? Think about the larger issue here. Right? There’s a like a thousand student groups at that university. And they’re all opposed to each other. You have the Catholics, the Atheists, the meat eaters. You have the vegans.

You have the Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that the groups cannot exist on campus because they offended one of the administrators. There would be no groups left on campus, especially nowadays with the LGBT alliance circles and Drag Shows. It’s very common.

Nico: Yeah. I mean, what are your values? Have you taken issue positions on this stuff? It just – anyway, two big issues at Tennessee Tech. Let’s just say Tennessee Tech. is not knocking the free speech ball of the free speech ballpark. Definitely a contender for our worse colleges for free speech that we will assuming sit down to discuss in January.

Alex: Yeah. We can’t wait to continue to signal boost all the speech that Tennessee Tech. and Emerson tried to censor. We love to continue when schools try to censor whatever group it is, whatever viewpoint. I always get real excited for being able to signal boost the speech that they were trying to censor.

Zach: Oh, yeah.

Nico: I like that the free-speech blues. Aaron, behind the camera here, is a guitar player. Maybe we can get him to kind of actually come in front of the camera and do the free-speech blues. He did a rendition of John Denver’s –

Zach: Yeah. I saw that one.

Nico: What’s the name of that song, Aaron?

Aaron: Country Roads.

Nico: Yeah. About speech codes and what’s ridiculous is fantastic. I think that’s on our YouTube channel. Right, Aaron?

Alex: We’re non-partisan. We’re multi-talented. Come to us for all your free speech needs.

Nico: We were talking about putting together a band because John Merigliano is a drummer.

Alex: A drummer. Okay.

Nico: I think – well, we do have a bassist. Jack Whitten, who runs our news desk, is a bass player.

Zach: And I pitched out in fifth grade. I’m right there.

Nico: Yeah. Yeah. Very cool.

Alex: I will watch.

Zach: There you go.

Alex: I have no talent.

Nico: I play guitar, so I could – Aaron can play lead. I can play rhythm. I was a Swedish Death Metal band for many years.

Zach: Swedish Death Metal.

Alex: Oh, yeah. I forgot about your Swedish Death Metal obsession.

Nico: Yeah. Yeah. Nothing has changed. Alright. Well, I think we’re gonna have to leave it there out of time. Zach, Alex, I appreciate you guys coming on the show to discuss the campus work this year. And for those of you who are listening, don’t forget my note at the beginning. Again, speech is free, but protecting it here at FIRE is not. We don’t live on love. We depend on your support and your donations to ensure that this free speech playhouse keeps rocking. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino.

And recorded and edited by my colleague, Aaron Reese. We also have Chris Maltby behind the camera as well. To learn about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter or Instagram by searching for the handle-free speech talk. And like us on Facebook at We also post full video versions of the episodes to So to Speak’s YouTube channel. And we post segments or clips to FIRE’s YouTube channel. So, check those out if you wanna see video versions of podcasts if you’re listening on a podcast player. If you have feedback, we take listener feedback at So to Speak at We also like reviews. The more reviews we get, the more Apple podcasts or Google Play feed this podcast to more potential listeners as they’re exploring for new podcast listen. And until next time, I wish you all a happy holiday, happy New Year, and we’ll talk to you in 2023.