The Arizona Legislature’s second joint meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities convened Monday, November 27, 2023, but this time, without Democrats. Republican Majority Leader Senator Sonny Borrelli (R-LD30) and Anthony Kern (R-LD27) and Representatives Quang Nguyen (R-1) and Austin Smith (R-29), among others, spoke out against ASU’s liberal bent and failure to protect all viewpoints.
Sen. Kern told the Arizona Globe after the meeting, “Taxpayers of Arizona are fed up with their money being used to fund State Universities whose Administration and faculty do everything to shut down and intimidate conservative students and campus free speech. University Administration has implemented zero discipline when marxist professors use taxpayer funded resources to push their marxist anti-Israel philosophy; yet conservative faculty are fired immediately and conservative students are afraid of their grades being lowered if they speak up.”
The meeting, which all Democrat members boycotted, focused on an event in February 2023 at ASU’s T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development. The event took place at the Barrett Honors College. The event, entitled “Health, Wealth and Happiness,” featured conservative speakers Charlie Kirk (Turning Point USA founder) and Dennis Prager (PragerU founder).
Rep. Nguyen told Arizona Globe, “After two hearings, it is clear to me that freedom of expression is not recognized and conservative views are NOT welcome on campus. Why did Democrats boycott the hearing? Maybe the truth is painful or they simply cannot defend ASU and its one-sided, self-investigated report.”
Ahead of the event, 37 out of the 40 faculty at Barrett condemned Kirk and Prager in a letter to Barrett’s Dean Tara Williams. Despite the mass protest, Kirk and Prager spoke as planned. However, in April of 2023, donor Tom Lewis withdrew his donation to support the namesake center, resulting in the firing of center director Ann Atkinson and event coordinator Linda Blake. They claim their respective firings were due to the censorship attempt and in retaliation for helping coordinate the event.
During the initial meeting in July 20203, Sen. Kern had called for an internal investigation by ASU into the alleged censorship. The conference on Monday was held, in part, to hear the results of the internal review. The review report, issued in September, denied any breach of free speech policies and debunked allegations from Atkinson and Blake that they were censored or fired in retaliation for the event.
Attorney Brett Johnson, who assisted with ASU’s internal report, spoke to the committee today, acknowledging that although there were “communication breakdowns” on ASU’s behalf, there was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.
He clarified that Atkinson was terminated solely due to losing funding – her $314,000 salary was contingent on Lewis’ continued $400,000 donation. He added that all programming and classes from the T.W. Lewis Center have continued, albeit with reduced student participation. He stated that the decreased enrollment was unrelated to the February event or any action by the university.
Kern requested additional university input to determine if the faculty had intimidated students by sharing the letter condemning the speaking engagement or protesting outside the event. The meeting ended with Sen. Sonny Borrelli recommending that the legislature “gut” university funding.
Kern joined the call, stating, “I think there’s an appetite for that, and now, we’re going to capitalize on that appetite for the next session.”
The committee will meet again on January 4, 2024.
Although Democrats boycotted the meeting, in a press release this morning, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitzi Epstein (D-LD12) and House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras (D-22) accused the committee of “grandstanding with an attempt to further spread misinformation and division.”
“We do not think this committee will objectively help ASU to take the necessary steps to ensure respect for all speakers to be heard,” Epstein and Contreras wrote. “Our Democratic Caucus will follow up with ASU and Arizona Board of Regents to confirm improved procedures and consistent application of procedures to protect freedom of speech.”
Kern put it succinctly, telling the Globe, “It’s time for donors and the State Legislature to send a message and stop funding these anti-American cesspools until they stop their anti-free speech nonsense.”
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