A well-known conservative provocateur took the stage on February 8 at Gammage to thunderous applause.
As he grabbed the microphone, Charlie Kirk looked every bit the young, charismatic leader of America’s populist right-wing movement, with a winning smile and disarming manner that instantly inspired confidence.
He then called Barrett, the Honors College professors, "intellectual midgets" and "cowards"– moments of hostility that kicked off the absurdly childish “Health, Wealth and Happiness” saga, which has ironically undermined their free speech advocacy.
In February, the Barrett faculty signed a letter voicing their disagreement with the T.W. Lewis Center's decision to include Kirk and Dennis Prager in the Barrett-sponsored “Health, Wealth and Happiness” event.
The letter stated that the 37 professors were not involved with the decision to invite Kirk and Prager and distanced themselves from those viewpoints, as they “do not reflect the commitment to critical thinking central to Barrett’s education mission.”
Nowhere in the letter did faculty members call for the event’s cancellation. They only objected to Barrett headlining an event with Kirk and Prager.
Yet somehow, Kirk seized this opportunity to skew the facts. In February, Kirk condemned the Barrett faculty for their “censorship.” A week ago, he called for ASU’s defunding in frustration. At this point, Kirk’s discussion is less about free speech and more about using it as an excuse to condemn those who disagree with his viewpoints.
Since February, the T.W. Lewis Center was dissolved because Tom Lewis himself decided to pull the funding, and the Arizona legislature launched an investigation into whether or not ASU censored Kirk and Prager.
The internal probe found no evidence of censorship, and both speakers returned to campus on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at the “Health, Wealth and Happiness 2.0” event with guns blazing.
“The 37 professors are intellectual lightweights,” Prager said at the event. “I have invited your despicable professors here who wrote that despicable thing about us to come on my show. They won’t debate us. They will only smear. These are truly empty, bad people.”
Kirk agreed with those statements, saying he considers ASU a “Stalinist enterprise.”
Of course, Kirk and Prager have the constitutional right to criticize a public university with contempt dripping from every syllable. The First Amendment protects it.
The problem is that Prager and Kirk malign free speech if it contradicts their positions. Their “right” to promote their messages supersedes the Barrett faculty’s right to express dissent.
To them, dissent is the censorship.
They have no shame in using low-level tactics to intimidate their opponents. Kirk prattled that free speech isn’t free speech if it’s punished. Yet, he had no philosophical reservations in letting his followers harass the 37 Barrett faculty members with threats of violence. He has no shame in endangering their safety by putting their contact information on a “Professor Watchlist” so invasive that even President Crow spoke out against it, which landed him on the same watchlist.
However, ASU students disagree with what Kirk and Prager claim.
According to data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit that assesses free speech on college campuses, 81% of ASU students say that it is somewhat to very clear that ASU supports free speech, and 74% say that if a controversial speaker were invited, ASU would defend the speaker's right to express those viewpoints.
Combined with the Legislature's findings that exonerate ASU from censorship, it's clear that free speech is safe at the University, contrary to what two provocateurs opine.
Free speech can be complicated in a country that protects it more than anywhere else. But throughout the “Health, Wealth and Happiness” saga this year, Kirk and Prager have demonstrated that they aren’t true advocates for disseminating ideas if they don’t conform to their own.
Both provocateurs would rather harass and ridicule their opponents than accurately represent their stances. Kirk prefers defunding ASU over accepting that some people might question his ideas. Prager would rather attack professors’ characters than engage in good-faith debate.
Caught up in ideological messaging, Kirk and Prager entirely miss their point about free speech: that it’s for everyone, even those you hate.
Edited by Shane Brennan, Walker Smith, Angelina Steel.
Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.