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How the Right Stifles Speech With Threats and Violence

The intimidation campaign against me after I appeared on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show is all too common. I kept my college teaching job, but other professors aren't so lucky.

Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at New Jersey’s Essex County College, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show earlier this month to debate the merits of a blacks-only Memorial Day party held by a New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter​. Carlson, as he does, provoked Durden. “You’re demented, actually,” he said. “You’re sick, and what you’re saying is disgusting.” Durden, a media personality herself, did not respond in kind. “Boo-hoo,” she said, “you white people are angry because you couldn’t use your ‘white privilege’ card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter all-black Memorial Day celebration.”

Two days later, Essex County College suspended Durden, and last week she was fired. Because of Durden’s appearance, school president Anthony E. Munroe wrote on Friday, “The College was immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear that the views expressed by a College employee (with influence over students) would negatively impact their experience on the campus…. While the adjunct who expressed her personal views in a very public setting was in no way claiming to represent the views and beliefs of the College, and does not represent the College, her employment with us and potential impact on students required our immediate review into what seemed to have become a very contentious and divisive issue.”

This justification for Durden’s firing, while disappointing, didn’t surprise me. I’m also a college professor, and appeared on Carlson’s show in April to defend my New Republic article about why colleges have a right to reject hateful speakers. While my appearance didn’t generate the same controversy as Durden’s, a wave of people contacted my school, Colby College in Maine, in an attempt to have me fired (they apparently missed the irony of trying to get someone fired for their speech, about speech, because you disagree with that speech). In addition, my colleagues in the English department, plus a few lucky senior administrators, have been hapless recipients of racist and anti-Semitic diatribes, thus burdening our IT staff.

Meanwhile, I received thousands of insults and threats. Beginning mere minutes after my appearance, I was deluged with emails and instant messages calling me a “fucking liberal idiot,” “pussy snowflake,” “ignorant and hypocritical cunt,” “fucking Nazi,” and “Jew fag.” Strangers threatened to break my legs, scalp me, and make me “eat a bullet.” One wished, in all-caps, “Hopefully you get robbed and killed by an illegal immigrant that was deported five times and he leaves you to bleed to death slowly so you have time [to] realize how fucking stupid you were all along.” There have also been repeated and likely actionable defamation attempts, which I’m still dealing with. (It’s also worth noting that I’m a straight, white, male, tenure-track professor at a top-tier institution that supports my public engagement, which is to say my experience with strangers eroticizing my slow death has been less traumatic than most professors’. I can only imagine—though I’d rather not—the bile directed privately at Durden.)

This was all in response to my careful argument about how campuses should handle invitations to speakers who are intentional provocateurs. Indeed, I had to remind Carlson and his audience no fewer than three times, in a roughly seven-minute TV segment, that I stand emphatically opposed to any sort of violence, from the left or the right, that would shut down free speech. While the right was calling for my job (and my head), I was meeting and corresponding with members of Colby’s chapter of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, to discuss campus free speech issues. Over five years, in hundreds of pages of teaching evaluations by my students, I haven’t received a single complaint about political bias.

Nevertheless, Carlson and other members of the right-wing media push the contradictory argument that the campus left is at once fragile and bloodthirsty. Liberal students and professors are incapable of dealing with ideas they disagree with, so they either retreat to safe spaces or use violence to shut down opposing points of view. Right-wing media have been selling the oxymoronic image of the “snowflake” “mob” for a while now, but have recently shifted emphasis, framing political violence on campus as a particularly left-wing phenomenon. Students who protest peacefully get lumped in with Antifa, a radical wing of leftist activism.

I’m not here to brush off violent left-wing protest. While I believe campus communities have good reason to disinvite or prohibit speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, I oppose the use of violence to shut down these speakers—not only because people get hurt, but because it creates an environment in which the threat of violence can indeed stifle speech, and not only overtly bigoted speech. Just as peaceful student protesters on the left don’t deserve to get caught up in violent, outside agitation, conservative students don’t deserve to be chased out of the room as “racists” for opposing affirmative action or advocating “school choice.”

The fact remains, however, that suppressive violence does not belong only to the left. Based not just on my experiences, but on a rash of recent incidents on and off campus, the right is demonstrating its propensity to make a big show of defending free speech, only to become Antifa’s mirror image.

Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, reportedly posted the following message on Facebook last week, several days after a shooter opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia: “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system. #LetThemFuckingDie.” Campus Reform, Fox News, The Washington Times, and The Blaze all jumped on Williams’s post, suggesting to varying degrees that he was saying Representative Steve Scalise and the other shooting victims should have been left to die. Williams neither mentioned nor alluded to the shooting, but he did also share a Medium post title “Let Them Fucking Die,” written by someone else, which asked, “What does it mean, in general, when victims of bigotry save the lives of bigots?” Regardless, the anger whipped up by right-wing media led to death threats against Williams, including a bomb threat. Williams took his family into hiding, and Trinity shut down for a day.

Just a week before Williams’s Facebook post—for which he apologized—another professor faced death threats for a social-media message. Syracuse University professor Dana Cloud tweeted:

Cloud was encouraging more people to join a counter-protest to an anti-Muslim gathering in downtown Syracuse. Ann Coulter retweeted Cloud, noting where the professor worked, and Campus Reform called the tweet a “veiled call to violence,” which prompted right-wing activists to inundate Cloud with threats and harassment.

Meanwhile, there’s an emerging phenomenon of right-wing agitators threatening Democratic candidates for office—and their families—in Iowa and New York, compelling the candidates to withdraw. Quartz reported recently:

Hours after discussing his bid for mayor in Binghamton, New York on local radio in April, Michael Treiman said he was emailed threats directed at his wife and children. The same evening, someone driving by his home yelled “liberal scumbag,” and hit him with a soda container while he was holding one of his toddlers.

Treiman said last week he has moved away from his hometown of 32 years, but will run for Binghamton mayor again when he can afford to hire a private security team.

These attempts at intimidation from the right should be enough to dispel the myth that the gravest threats of suppressive violence are coming from the left. Even at Berkeley, where violent responses to potential speeches by Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos were largely attributed to the left, we know that Antifa and others employing “black bloc” tactics were squaring off with equally violent groups on the right. We’ve seen the same thing happen at Portland rallies, as well as at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Elizabeth Hokoana allegedly shot a Yiannopoulos protester through the stomach and her husband, Marc, allegedly fired pepper spray; the day before, according to police, Marc messaged a friend on Facebook stating he “can’t wait for tomorrow… I’m going to the Milo event and if the snowflakes get out off hand [sic] I’m just going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”

As the New Republic’s Clio Chang reported, militant groups affiliated with white supremacy and the alt-right movement have been suiting up in homemade body armor, arming themselves with bats, sticks, and other makeshift weapons, and seeking out protests to start fights with leftists. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes one such group, the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, as a “‘fight club’ ready for street violence,” and FOAK founder Kyle Chapman affirms: “We don’t fear the fight. We are the fight.” Meanwhile, after the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar angered conservatives who misread the play as an endorsement of Trump’s assassination, Shakespeare theaters not even associated with the Public Theater’s production have been receiving death threats.

There’s no question, then, that the right has no standing to chastise the left for suppressive violence. But countering such intimidation from the right, which claims to believe passionately in freedom of speech, will require more than just pointing out their hypocrisy. Because the far-right activists behind these threats are playing by a different set of rules from those of us who have a responsibility to educate.

I consider it my duty to model rational, deliberative, and respectful engagement in public life as best I can for my students. So even when Tucker Carlson engages in theatrics to antagonize me, I won’t demean or mischaracterize him in return. And if I won’t return his hyperbolic rhetoric, I certainly won’t sink to the level of viewers who lob threats. Right-wing extremists understand this, which is partly whey they target professors and local political candidates—people who feel a duty to behave responsibly, but who are also unlikely to have public relations teams and media strategists at our disposal to handle the formidable interruptions that threats and harassment cause to our daily lives.

As we saw recently in Montana’s special congressional election, when then-candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, violent intimidation is tolerated, if not rewarded, by the right, even among people holding or vying for positions of civic responsibility. By contrast, every single professor I’ve named in this essay—and many more—has had to contend with threats to their jobs as a consequence of being attacked because of, or through, right-wing media. Crude insults, intimidation campaigns, and other tactics that win plaudits on the right as signals of “dominance” are the same tactics that, if practiced by professors in return—even in our private lives off campus—would lead to calls for our jobs, or worse. The attempt by right-wing media to frame suppressive violence as a leftist tactic is a form of projection, meant only to obscure and deflect from the extent to which hatred and violence have come to define the right in the Trump era.