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Joint state legislative committee gives University 60 days to investigate Prager event and T.W. Lewis Center

ASU faculty and representatives, Ann Atkinson and Dennis Prager were some of those who testified in front of a Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression


Conservative media personality and co-founder of PragerU, Dennis Prager, speaks at the Health, Wealth and Happiness event with Dr. Radha Gopalan, Robert Kiyosaki and moderator Ann Atkinson at the Gammage Theater on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Tempe.

State lawmakers, political and social activists, and University faculty gathered at the state capitol for a joint legislative committee hearing in the wake of the recent dissolution of the T.W. Lewis Center at Barrett, the Honors College.

This was the first hearing for the brand new Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities, consisting of six state house and four state senate members. Six Republicans and four Democrats comprise the group, which is chaired by Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale.

"Freedom of Speech is a principle our country was founded on and something I will always aim to protect," said Kern in an Arizona Senate Republicans press release

Kern said the University has 60 days to investigate the events and the testimonies in the hearing and to act on those findings. At the end of the 60 days, a judiciary committee will act based on the "thoroughness of the report." He said he is trusting ASU to lead the investigation.

READ MORE: Starting this week, the T.W. Lewis Center at Barrett is no more

The subject of the over four-hour Senate meeting was the "Health, Wealth, and Happiness" event presented by the then-functioning T.W. Lewis Center at Barrett. The event included conservative figures Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. Despite a letter condemning the event from members of Barrett faculty, the event went on without a hitch.

The center dissolved when its main donor, T.W. Lewis, pulled its funding as a result of his frustrations with Barrett faculty and the University.

READ MORE: Barrett event with Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager draws faculty and student protest 

Executive Vice Provost and Dean of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Patrick Kenney, one of three faculty members to represent the University, said ASU supported the free expression of the faculty when 39 members of Barrett faculty signed a letter against Barrett ties to the “Health, Wealth and Happiness” event. 

“The point of (the letter) was free expression of the faculty,” Kenney said at the hearing. “If that expression moved to cancel that event, which it did not,  then that would be a serious issue given our topic today.”

Ann Atkinson, who recently claimed she was fired as executive director of the Lewis Center for the event in the Wall Street Journal, said in the meeting that the Barrett faculty who petitioned against the event created a “faculty mob” and later added that she advocates for everyone at ASU having the ability to speak freely. 

“I think everyone at ASU has the right to expression. We are a beacon of free expression,” Atkinson said. “Faculty have the right to express their views but there are very clear rules as an employee of an institution or a member of the faculty.”

Atkinson said some Barrett faculty members created a “national condemnation campaign” against the “Health, Wealth and Happiness” event that made students not attend. Atkinson blamed the lack of support on Barrett's Dean, Tara Williams. 

English Professor Richard Newhauser attended in support of the University and Barrett faculty who signed the letter condemning the event. Newhauser said of the Barrett faculty he knows, he knows they would only uplift free expression. 

“I know a number of the faculty in Barrett who have been accused of stifling free speech and I know they did not do that,” Newhauser said. “The Barrett professors who I know did not discourage their students from going to this event and they did not intimidate anyone. They were exercising their free speech by …wanting to distance themselves from the T.W. event.” 

Kern was unable to confirm during the testimony of Atkinson if Williams had been invited to speak at the hearing Tuesday.  Tom Lewis, the primary donor to the former T.W. Lewis Center, was not at the hearing and did not testify to the joint legislative committee about the dissolving of the center. 

Edited by Shane Brennan, Angelina Steel

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