Audience members walked past protesters and security guards Tuesday to hear controversial speaker Mike Adams offer the 10th annual Jeff Cole lecture at the University of Montana.
At an event peppered with a handful of disruptions, Adams gave a talk called “The Death of Liberal Bias in Higher Education” to honor the late Wall Street Journal reporter and UM alum. In his talk, Adams reminded people they’ll be offended from time to time, and he said it’s the price of freedom.
Liberalism presupposes tolerance, and tolerance presupposes moral judgment, he said. And he said the existence of moral judgment has a guarantee:
“You will be offended from time to time, but that’s OK because that’s the price of living in a free society.”
Adams is a criminologist who has won a First Amendment case, and UM benefactor Maria Cole, who was married to Jeff, selected him to speak partly because his experience defending free speech. In his own columns, though, Adams targets LGBT people, Muslims, feminists and other minorities, and his views have drawn criticism including from some UM faculty.
At the event, he kicked off his talk with a story about a “freedom of association” case in Alabama. In the 1950s, white supremacists were trying to join the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people.
Their objective was to change the organization’s constitution to run counter to its mission and, for instance, support racial segregation, Adams said.
“This was just a nasty thing for them to do,” Adams said.
The NAACP protected itself by stating that its members must share its beliefs in order to join, and it also kept its list of officers and members private. But the secrecy frustrated KKK members who wanted to lynch and harass NAACP members and supporters, Adams said.
With help from the attorney general at the time, the white supremacists sought to deprive the NAACP of its tax-exempt status if it didn’t reveal its members, and a related case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
In an unanimous decision, the court ruled that people have the right to freely express themselves through organization and association, he said, and they don’t have to express themselves publicly; they can express themselves privately as well.
“Raise your hand if you support what the NAACP did.” Adams said to the crowd. “Now raise your hand if you think the Klan did the right thing.”
He said audience members might find the latter a strange question, but he wanted to see if they were dedicated to a principled defense of the First Amendment.
The Dennison Theater seats 1,100, and the lower level was mostly full; the number of registrants was some 700.
Cole opened the event in an unusual way for a large Missoula gathering. She asked the audience to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and followed it with prayer by a guest.
In a video clip, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, shamed UM because the School of Journalism dean did not want the school to sponsor the event this year, citing Adams’ lack of credentials and potential to offend students. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, also shared a video message defending writers and some unbiased reporters; in May, Gianforte body slammed a Guardian reporter and broke his glasses. Cole said she requested comment from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, but did not receive a statement.
Some audience members came to listen to a speaker with whom they knew they would disagree. Chris Young-Greer, a UM student, said it’s important to hear alternate viewpoints, and she attended the lecture partly because she supports free speech.
“I also think it’s important to come and hear first-hand the rhetoric he speaks so we can combat that in an educational way,” Young-Greer said.
She herself is an African-American in an interracial marriage, and she believed she might hear offensive remarks, but she said it wouldn’t be the first time.
“I’ve heard worse, probably, by far better people,” Young-Greer said.
School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson’s decision to bow out of sponsoring this year’s Cole lecture for the first time flabbergasted Cole, who is reconsidering her giving to UM. She has donated more than $1.2 million to the School of Journalism in some 15 years.
Although the dean did not appear to be in the audience at least shortly after 6 p.m., some UM and UM Foundation officials were in attendance, including former School of Journalism Dean and former Vice President for Communications Peggy Kuhr, journalism professors Dennis Swibold and Nadia White, current Vice President for Enrollment Tom Crady, and at least three representatives from the UM Foundation, CEO and President Cindy Williams, board chair Mary Olson, and Gita Saedi Kiely, director of development for the School of Journalism.
The story Adams told that paralleled the one about the NAACP took place in North Carolina, and he used it to show a trend he said is harmful on campuses. He pointed directly at what he termed intellectually lazy campus administrators as culprits.
“They are engaged in illiberal discrimination,” Adams said.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, he said an administrator decided to threaten the Muslim Student Association because he noticed that their constitution espoused orthodox views of Islam including on matters of human sexuality, opposing homosexuality and sex outside marriage. The administrator “was doubtlessly offended by their beliefs,” Adams said, and he tried to exercise his authority to force them to change their constitution.
The university’s legal counsel thwarted him, but after she stepped down and another lawyer took over, the new lawyer wrote 24 threatening letters to campus groups, mostly religious and specifically Christian ones, Adams said.
“The letters he sent to these student organizations were as shocking as they were embarrassing,” Adams said.
Adams helped support a lawsuit by a Christian group, and within six months, he said, they prevailed: “They won because they had the guts to stand up and fight in a court of law.”
But he said the enemies of free speech are relentless, and they continue to bring new ideas into the conversation. Adams considers the concept of “micro-aggression” one of the most dangerous because it’s the idea that hearing a dissenting opinion is somehow equated with an act of violence.
“It is an idea that has to be buried on the ash heap of history. It’s an idea that is antithetical to a free society,” Adams said.
In North Carolina, Adams said students and legislators are working on and passing legislation that strengthens free speech, and he challenged Montana to not only follow suit but to best his state.
“You have a choice. You can be comfortable or you can be free. But you cannot be both,” Adams said.
Adams drew applause throughout his speech, but several times, people in the audience disrupted the lecture.
When Adams said at one point a campus wouldn’t pay for his honorarium or hotel after inviting him, one person yelled, “‘Cause you’re a bigot.” Security escorted the person out. Another person talked loudly on a cell phone but the conversation appeared to be part of a protest as well: “I’m doing really well. I’m at this weird talk, though.”
Another person raised a sign suggesting Adams perform a sex act, and assuring him he wouldn’t be judged. The person walked down the aisle and also was ushered out.
Before the event, members of a local activist group called Missoula Rises registered for some 400 tickets they didn’t plan to use as part of a protest, according to Cole. She said she spent five days authenticating registrations. The group estimated the count at closer to 223 and defended the activism.
After the talk, UM communications and political science student Bliss Collins said he was interested in the agenda and wanted to hear the controversial speaker. He finds some of the speaker’s stances inhumane, and he wondered if Adams at times undercut his own mission and American progress by jabbing people unnecessarily with toxic rhetoric. But he agreed with the arguments Adams made about protecting free speech.
“I think that the overall message, regardless of what I agree with or disagree with, was spot on,” said Collins, a senior from Helena.
Jan Graham, of Darby, came to support her friend Maria Cole, and she said she appreciated the message about taking a broad view of tolerance. She found his knowledge vast and inspiring.
“It’s overwhelming, actually. Obviously, he’s very knowledgeable and has been exposed to a lot of different things that he brings to the table and shares with you.”
Before the event, people gathered to protest.
Police stood out front, asking people if they had pocket knives with them, and security guards used metal detectors and did not allow backpacks inside.
About 20 people chanted “No hate in our state!” and “My body my choice!” referencing Adams’ anti-abortion stance.
Marissa Compton, a UM law student, was among them.
“We do know the university doesn’t endorse this speaker, but as students, we just want to protest his presence on our campus,” she said.
Compton and some of her classmates handed out papers with printed Twitter posts by Adams as examples of the kind of speech they were protesting, including insults against gay couples, transgender people, and a joke about sexual harassment.
“I think as a professor he needs to be held to a standard in terms of respecting his students,” Compton said.
Two other people stood beside a banner that read “Freedom,” in support of Adams and free speech.
Signs posted on the theater doors read “No Bags Weapons or Signs” and “The views and opinions expressed during this private event are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views and values of the University of Montana.”
Adams opened reiterating the fact that UM administrators don’t share his views — but he said they should, to laughter from the crowd.
“I’m sorry, but sarcasm is my love language.”