Anthea Butler thought she’d heard it all before.
Butler, a religious study professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a black woman who teaches a class about the religious right in America and a fiery liberal on social media, has been ridiculed in recent years on primetime TV by the right’s Sean Hannity and called out on AM radio by Rush Limbaugh.
So she’s gotten used to the call-outs by angry conservative eggs on Twitter, to the emails that call her an n-word who doesn’t belong on an Ivy League campus and to the calls to her department chair from people posing as Penn alums, demanding that this professor with an expansive Afro who calls herself “dangerous” in her online profile be fired ASAP.
But when a fellow professor contacted her a few weeks ago and told her she’d been placed on a brand new nationwide “professor watch list” intended to help conservatives identify faculty liberals, Butler felt like rising McCarthyism on America’s campuses just surged to a new high water mark.
“So it’s making things uncomfortable for everybody, which I’m personally upset about and don’t like,” Butler told me this month, referring to the online list that includes several well-known professors. “It affects the environment” on a campus like Penn, “the sense that there’s free speech for some and not for others. If you’re a black women at an Ivy League school, there no free speech for me because they’re already pissed that I’m there.”
It hasn’t escaped the attention of Butler and others that a list targeting liberal profs came out at the same time that Donald Trump — who campaigned in an often-bullying style against so-called elites like the media and the academic community — is ascending to the presidency. In one sense, it all seems like a back-to-the-future moment, because professors were often watched and targeted for alleged leftist sympathies, real or imagined, by the FBI and its allies in the 1950s and ’60s in the era kicked off by the Communist witch hunts of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
But there is also something new and frightening about an era of emboldened white nationalists and others on the fringe far-right and their ability to use the internet, social media and other technologies to bully and try to silence voices they don’t agree with.
Since Trump’s election victory on Nov. 8, there’s been a surge in reported “hate crimes” on college campuses as well as high schools in middle schools, from Swastikas on bathroom stalls to racist texts, with growing concern over physical violence. Conservatives have countered that the minority of students who support Trump or right-leaning causes are the ones being harassed.
The professor watch list, created and promulgated by a nationwide youth-oriented conservative group called Turning Point USA, feels like dousing that smoldering flame with kerosene.
What’s more, what purpose could the list serve beyond intimidating liberal-leaning academics from speaking freely? — a motive that seems absurd considering that the No. 1 right-wing complaint about college campuses has been so-called “speech codes” and “political correctness” they claim (occasionally with justification) can assault the 1st Amendment.
Matt Lamb, a University of Nebraska grad student with the title of director of constitutional enforcement and transparency for Turning Point USA, insisted to me in a phone conversation that the intent of the watch list wasn’t to shut professors up or shut them down.
“We want students to push back,” he insisted, adding that the goal is to collect all the random reports of professorial comments that have outraged conservatives in recent years and corral them on one handy-dandy list.
Yet one other troubling aspect of the list is that the majority of the supposed heresies didn’t even take place in a classroom, where critics on the right have long insisted that students are indoctrinated with liberal ideas. Many happened on Twitter, during televised appearances, in published op-eds or at political rallies.
Penn’s Butler, for example, is cited for a tweet referring to another pundit, also black, who used a racial epithet about then-presidential candidate Ben Carson, and for an article she wrote after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, in which she wrote “this American god ain’t my god.” The renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who taught at Penn for years and is now at New York University, made the list for the sin of comparing Trump’s immigration policies to Hitler in an article for the Poynter Institute.
Turning Point’s Lamb told me, in essence, that professors are always on duty, even when the comment is made on Twitter or in an op-ed.
It all seems ridiculous to the newly blacklisted, like Temple professor of higher education policy and sociology Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the acclaimed book on the high cost of college (ironically, a supposed pet issue for conservatives) titled “Paying the Price.”
Shortly before leaving the University of Wisconsin for Temple, Goldrick-Rab had come under fire for tweeting about similarities between Badger State Gov. Scott Walker and, you guessed it, Hitler.
“It’s an attempt to tell students what to think and do and is also therefore insulting,” Goldrick-Rab told me by email. “What they claim I did is nonsense, and was twisted by the media as part of launching Walker’s presidential campaign. What matters is that faculty stand for free speech and the deliberate discussion of difficult ideas, and I and everyone on the list do that.”
She continued: “This is going to put a chill on a lot of people from saying things. It limits the kind of conversations we can have — who wants these people doxxing you?” — that is, printing personal information such as phone numbers and home addresses.
It’s not just college professors, but union presidents, journalists and even, sadly, members of Congress who find themselves at the end of a torrent or abuse and even threats of violence, often for doing little more than criticizing — or just getting criticized by — our incoming Dear Leader.
Groups like Turning Point USA certainly do have a 1st Amendment right to air their grievances about certain professors and post them to the internet.
But I think they also know the shameful real-world consequences. McCarthyism has been with us for a long time, but in 2016 McCarthyism has been weaponized, and honest free speech can only suffer.
For conservatives, the supposed champions of campus free speech, to be doing this isn’t just gross. It’s the height of hypocrisy.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.