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Bigotry Backfires in Montana

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Larry Abramson, Dean of the University of Montana (UM) School of Journalism, has irreparably harmed the reputation of his school. With its 93% acceptance rate, UM has never been a selective university with a stellar reputation. Nonetheless, Abramson’s decision to reject my selection as the keynote for 10th annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture Series has backfired and badly embarrassed the institution. To make matters worse, UM President Sheila Stearns has missed a golden opportunity to mitigate the damage by responding with an unequivocal defense of free speech.

Those needing additional background information on the controversy can read my column “Grizzly Bigotry at the University of Montana” published here on back in October. The letter/column, which was actually sent to President Stearns, provoked a response. Fortunately, that response has produced a dialogue, which has culminated in a rescheduling of my speech. It will now occur on February 13th at 6 p.m. in UM’s Dennison Theater, a venue seating 1100 people. 

As much as I appreciate President Stearns for answering my letter and for assuring me I will be allowed to speak on campus, there are four specific problems with her response to the controversy. Two take the form of affirmative misstatements. Two take the form of omissions. I’ll start with the two misstatements:

1. Does the J-school really have unlimited authority to decline to sponsor controversial speakers? By characterizing it as “his own decision,” President Stearns has implied that the Dean of the J-school has unlimited authority to decline to sponsor any speaker for any reason. This is a tenuous position at best. The journalism school has opened a limited public forum by agreeing to host the lecture series for the past ten years – and to do so on the UM campus. In this case, ten years into the series, Abramson suddenly vetoed a speaker who had already entered into a written contract with the series benefactor. The Dean cited numerous reasons in an email written to the benefactor, which I reprinted in my previous column on the controversy. Among those reasons was that I “appeared to be siding with Christians in the ‘culture war.’” Anyone who has read the Dean’s admission realizes exactly what he was saying. He was banning me from a forum on the basis of my political beliefs and religion. Stearns needs to consult with university counsel before she gives a free pass to those who wish to engage in religiously driven viewpoint discrimination within the publicly funded university system.

2. Did a speaker ban ever really occur in the current controversy? In her comments to the press and to others, President Stearns has suggested that I was never technically banned from speaking at UM. But Stearns’ subsequent offer to host me on campus doesn’t mean that no ban was ever imposed. To understand the imprudence of making such a sweeping denial, consider this thought experiment:

A controversial conservative columnist is riding in a taxicab, owned by the company Mellow Cab. The progressive activist cab driver recognizes him and recalls his columns opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. He pulls over and refuses to take him to his destination. The columnist is angry and writes a column denouncing the fact that he was banned from riding in Mellow Cabs. The president of Mellow Cab responds by saying the driver was under no obligation to let the columnist ride with him. But he claims there was no ban because there are other drivers who would be happy to take him to his destination. Scheduling another ride after the initial expulsion may be an inconvenience. But there was never any ban – at least not technically.

Obviously, the president’s decision to quibble over technicalities makes the company look bad. What is even worse is the emphasis on the driver’s right of refusal absent a statement addressing what is wrong with the motivation for expelling the rider in the first place. In a similar vein, there are two crucial elements missing from Stearns’ response to the controversy at UM:

1. Is Larry Abramson guilty of sexism (if not hate speech)? In addition to complaining about my propensity to side with Christians in the culture wars, Abramson claimed in a radio interview that my past speech belittled feminists and probably rose to the level of hate speech. (You can hear his remarks in their entirety by clicking here). In other words, Abramson, as a middle-aged white male, was compelled to step in to protect feminists from speech he assumed they were emotionally unequipped to handle. Perhaps the Dean has engaged in hate speech by suggesting that women are emotionally inferior to men. Regardless, the female university president should have been the first to denounce Abramson for espousing the paternalistic view that women need to be protected by men from ideas that might cause them emotional distress.

2. Is Mr. Abramson even fit to be a Dean? It is every professor’s job to facilitate a free and open marketplace of ideas in the classroom. It is every Dean’s job to make sure that the sprit of open inquiry thrives across the entire curriculum. This principle should be most evident in an area of study such as journalism. Thus, upon further reflection, the reader can see that my taxicab hypothetical is inadequate. Abramson could have been compared to the cabbie that refuses to drive because he is frightened by the mere prospect of a traffic accident.

Regardless of one’s response to the last two questions, it is clear that the Dean’s ideological intolerance has backfired. In the past, 100 to 200 people have typically attended the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture series. This year, 450 tickets were sold the first day they were made available. 

Thus, it is shaping up to be a victory for true intellectual diversity over smug academic hypocrisy. 

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