I Will Not Be Silenced: The Vital Work of Academic Freedom in the Education of Citizens

On the morning after the 2016 election of Donald Trump many of us were bleary; some were despairing, and I was both. But I was also clear-headed and I understood then, just as I do now, what his presidency meant. I understood what it meant for the struggle for social and racial justice. I understood what it meant for the environment, especially the climate. I understood what it meant for peoples and places in the developing world. I understood what it meant for the ongoing oppression of America’s indigenous peoples. I understood what it meant for education. I understood that white nationalists, anti-Semites, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigots would be emboldened. I understood what this election meant for the pursuit of the very idea of a democratic republic.

I understood it was my duty to signal to my fellows in as public a way as I could that the country was now confronted with an existential threat. To be clear, it’s not that we didn’t know this to be true; we did, and we do. It’s that it’s vital that we signal this truth to one another in order to create solidarity. It’s critically important that we make examples of ourselves as teachers and citizens to our students that we care deeply about the role of the academy in a free society. I thus took the American flag I had from home and hung it upside down in my office window at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, a window that looks directly out onto the campus quad.

It hung there without a peep of displeasure from any quarter until March of 2018, without even acknowledgement. It’s been accompanied by other signage in protest of the Trump regime. But had I been asked a week ago whether I thought my distress signal had made the least bit of difference, I would have said no, shaking my head in grief. After all, this is a university campus, the marketplace of ideas, a fulcrum of debate, one of the last bastions in our country where freedom of speech really matters — a last bastion under relentless assault by Alt-Right drones like Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, Campus Reform, Campus Watch, the Proud Boys, and Ethan Ralph of the misogynist Ralph Retort, (https://academeblog.org/2017/12/18/how-the-alt-right-seeks-to-sabotage-the-university/).

On Monday, March 26th my unnoticed dissent exploded into a conflagration of verbal assault, threats, in-person harassment, character assassination, and most importantly a concerted effort by my university administration to intimidate me into taking down the flag. What ignited a Facebook firestorm appears to have been a post created by a man claiming to be a student marine — someone who, because he’s a student, has very likely walked past and seen that flag for at least the entire semester if not since November, 2016. Here’s his original post:

So this is how my college university rocks out. Bloomsburg University Professor Wendy Lee decided to put these signs up in the window of her classroom yesterday. What baffles me, is why parents would spend thousands and thousands of dollars just to have their kids indoctrinated with liberal ideology? If you want your kids to not develop their own political beliefs and opinions, to not think for their selves, and to just drink the Jim Jones Kool-Aid, save yourself some money and just have your kids sit at home and watch CNN or MSNBC for eight hours a day. I was a Marine who completed three combat tours in Iraq. Twice I was wounded and shed my blood for this country. Ironically, one of the rights that men like my brothers and I fought for is Professor Wendy Lee’s right to freedom of speech, the right to fly the American Flag upside down, and the right to post these things about our president, Donald J. Trump. To be honest, I’m not even mad or upset. I’ve become use to seeing, and even have come to expect to see things like this on a daily basis. However, what worries me more than anything, is that this is suppose to be an academic setting where our children are learning. Part of learning is being exposed to different ideals and beliefs. But when you have a someone in a position of authority and power, like this professor who has tenure, blatantly pushing ideologies, liberal or even conservative, onto our students, I think this is an egregious violation of their position of authority. There is a difference between “teaching” students about various political platforms and ideologies, and “forcing” your own personal views on them thus indoctrinating them.” This is partly what is wrong with the society that we live in today….this blatant and flagrant abuse of power.

The student agrees that I have freedom of speech, and then withdraws that acknowledgement; he says he’s “not that mad,” but calls my flag-hanging a “flagrant abuse of power.” Why this week and what he actually sought from this posting other than venting remains a mystery. I can say this much: he has never sought me out to discuss why I had so hung the flag. Had he, I would have explained to him what I posted in the middle of the Facebook firestorm that had ignited within quite literally seconds after he pressed “enter”:

I have hung the flag upside down to demonstrate my despair at the state of the country I love under a president who is morally bankrupt, politically corrupt, and driven by greed. That folks don’t apparently want to hear that message isn’t something I can control. I have been appalled, but not surprised, at the volume of vitriol escalating here, but mostly I am saddened by the staggering and willful ignorance. The irony is that what I’ve done is defend our democratic principles, the very principles these folks have trampled in their effort to intimidate me. They can’t frighten me. I know where I stand, and I know why. I stand by education.

And I stand by freedom of conscience. I find it remarkable, though, again, not surprising, that so many here feel themselves entitled to vomit invectives with force and apparent impunity. This is the refuge of he or she who has no argument to make, has no reasons or evidence to offer — but yet feels themselves compelled to jump on a bandwagon — in this case a wagon headed off the ledge into a Trumpian dystopia.

It’s also important to point out that the vast majority, though by no means all of the posters, and especially the really threatening ones — like the fellows who claimed to be coming to the campus to tear the posters out of my second story window — are, in fact white men. This is no coincidence. It is plain evidence of just how truly threatened these fellas feel about a world that, little by little, refuses to accede to their hegemony. That many of these same men are racists, and that some are avowed white nationalists, is also no surprise. I have been calling out their patently absurd dinosaur of a worldview now for months, especially their connections to Turning Point USA, an alt-right functionary if ever there was.

I’m not going away. And I will not be silenced. I am exactly the citizen this Republic was intended for. And I intend to make that real until the end of my days.

Whether such an argument would have made a difference to this young man, I don’t know. But it made no difference whatever to posters determined to advance the claim that my having so displayed the flag surely meant that I was engaged in the “indoctrination” of “Leftist,” “feminist,” “faggot,” ideas, and that I was “forcing” students to adopt my “liberal” worldview. This is, of course, unvarnished bull-pucky. While many claimed that I had hung the flag in my classroom window, none appear to have inquired whether professors even have our own classrooms (we don’t), and none appear to have taken any responsibility to go look. Though I certainly know that in this venue, an organ of the academy, I likely needn’t make this defense, I will anyways for whatever reader wanders in (and they will; I am now regularly stalked, trolled, and vilified on-line): there exists a bright sharp line between a professor’s civic and personal convictions and her pedagogical commitments.

I did not give up my first amendment rights to become a teacher-scholar, and my aim in my classroom has been the same for all of my 32 years in the academy, namely, to make my students think; think until their brains bleed out their ears; think about whether every assumption they have ever made about anything is worth retaining; think so that they see what Socrates meant when he said the unexamined life is not worth living. My goal is to equip them with precisely that finely-honed a set of critical thinking skills without which no democracy can long survive — without which human dignity and respect for human rights are meaningless. To this end, I introduce my students to all manner of ideas and arguments under the sun. I teach some of the most controversial material on the BU campus, feminist philosophy, philosophy of ecology, a critical survey of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, a seminar on institutionalized violence, critical theory. And I teach this material with precisely the same rigor and commitment to examine ideas openly and objectively as I teach Introduction to Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and bioethics.

Not one scintilla of my classroom life is “indoctrination.” But what I have come to realize is that these on-line assailants don’t actually care about education at all; they don’t care about free speech. What they do care about is fostering a narrow and veryviolent worldview that insures the protected hegemony of a very white, very male, and very “Western” worldview. This is the only reasonable conclusion to draw from on-line comments hell-bent on promoting whole-cloth lies — like the one about how I evicted a student from my classroom for wearing a MAGA Trump hat, or the one about how I regularly throw out “conservative” students. And these are not critics; many are verbal assailants. Here’s just a tiny sample of what became nearly 2000 mostly abusive comments over this last semester:

Want some help taking it down John Fromille? Lol I got your back brother!! Only about 20 mins away from there. Me 2

You should seriously go drink a bottle of aids. Just emailed your wonderful pictures to Bob Woodruff. Can’t wait to see you lose your job

B!t{h, stfu. If my Nazi ass saw u flying the American flag that my brothers died for, id do something ud remember forever.

These people are the reason the 2nd amendment was necessary!

This lady should be teaching, not preaching her politic stance to students who pay money to learn. She’ll be without a job pretty soon. She doesn’t realize the severity of her actions just yet. But she will.

Everyone on this thread except ****, is a royal piece of shit and I hope some terrorism happens to you and u cant defend yourselves cuz u have vaginas. Fuckin liberal pieces of shit. Ruining my fuckin country. Fuck u.

If you don’t like this country then get the fuck out. There is no reason for this to be at a university it’s just giving it a bad reputation now. And to have to flag upside you are straight trash. My boyfriend and a lot of his friends fought for ur freedom and stood behind that flag and you want to treat it like that. I hope you loose your job bc u don’t deserve it!

As all of you cunts are nice & safe in this country thanks to Marines like John you are able voice your opinions from a nice safe (place) until you walked a patrol in Helmand, Kunar province or Iraq you have no nothing to say ! GET OVER IT YOUR HEAD CUNT HILLARY LOST , DON’T LIKE IT LEAVE

Everyone needs to push to get her fired and banned from ever teaching again. She is a disease that’s spreading her own propaganda. Something has to be done. We cannot stand by as this happens. Everyone needs to do something

She is a piece of liberal shit

But if you challenge this professor will you get the grade you deserve? I think not. It will be a biased grade!!!

Send these snowflakes to North Korea or Iran Let’s see how fast they change their views

If you support this teacher you’re fucking weak . I wish we lived in a society where this wasn’t taken so lightly and the teacher was put away for shit like this

I just emailed the school president with that picture attached asking what kind of school he is running!!! Check out this chick personal FB….she is all political, nothing personal….no wonder she trying to fuck with kids heads…loser!!!

I’m sure this would look good for the university on the news tonight

You are a hate spewing Marxist and you should be deported!

Get rid of the piece of shit Wendy Lynn Lee

Someone should send this to the President. He should cut off all Bloomsburg’s funding.

Exactly! If Professor Wendy Lee identifies you as a conservative, she’s going to automatically fail you based on your political beliefs and ideology!

Don’t get why it’s so hard to leave the country if you don’t like the current presidentbecause you cant afford it? Trump took your stamps away so youre pissed right? half the shit yall say would have you beheaded in any other country, quit bitchin

Really… Go ahead and disagree with her in class. I bet you would fail the class. This is abuse of a position of power. This woman is filled with hate and you think she wouldn’t hate to pass you for opposing her views.

CHECK OUT HER FB PICS! THIS WOMAN HAS ALOT OF HATE AND IS VERY DISTURBED! WOW. AND SHE A TEACHER?

You are paid to teach, not push your agenda. It is not your school, you have no right to post things in the window forcing people to view your lies and propaganda. People go to school to get away from this political nonsense yet you are forcing it on them. You are a disease.

The point is shes pushing her lies and political agenda on students. That breaks policy, especially posting hate speech in her window and desecrating the American flag. Slander is illegal. Shes committing crimes slandering the president calling him racist. She is going against employee policy. Free speech does not apply to criminal speech or non public institutions

It’s all about the Pussification of merica. Whole lotta Libtards!

She is desecrating the American flag and spouting lies. She has been pushing her agenda aggressively in the classroom breaking policy by pressuring students with lies and propaganda. She is there to teach not protest america

The President of the University. president@bloomu.edu. Good Luck and let’s start calling and emailing!

I’m sick of people like that it’s time we all take a hard stand it’s time to pay a visit to her she should be fired

Lady, you are a delusion nut job. If words hurt you to the point where you scream out to the world that anyone who dissagrees with your extreme leftist ideological are just far right, radical white supremacists you have absolutely no right to teach children

There has been students in your classes that have worn “Trump” hats or “Make America Great Again Shirts, and you’ve kicked them out of your classroom

Shouldn’t she be fired, immediately?

Except for the fact that the left is the one thay blocks conservative speaches all the time. Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder for example. What a lot of shit you spit out of your mouth. Unreal

What’s critically important to see here is that this really is just a sample — not merely of the vitriol to which I have been subjected more than once — but of what is becoming more and more common throughout the academy. Consider, for example, the very similar abuse heaped on Professor Alison Downie at Indiana University of Pennsylvania: http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2018/03/15/indiana-university-of-pennsylvania-professor-alison-downie-explains-why-smiling-christians-enraged-her/#comment-3832939610.

Yet, what’s also becoming more and more commonplace throughout the academy — and I’d argue is a far greater threat — is the de factocomplicity of university administrations in the repression of faculty free speech. I have written about this with respect to my experience of Turning Point USA’s efforts to silence me, and my administration’s failure to defend the values of the academy here: https://www.academia.edu/35322691/Letter_to_My_Colleagues_Concerning_Turning_Point_USA_and_Professor_Watchlist_Its_Time_for_Courage_and_Conviction.

The truly mind-bending irony of BU’s response to my request to rescind formal recognition of the TPUSA-BU chapter (not their member’s free speech rights) is that in their refusal they clearly signaled to Turning Point that their members were free to engage in precisely the oppressive activities that is, for instance, TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist in addition to their coordinated attacks on faculty across the country. To be clear, I am not suggesting that TPUSA, much less TPUSA–BU had anything to do with the assault I’m describing here. What I am suggesting is that it’s in no way surprising that these attacks are becoming more vicious and more frequent. Organizations like TPUSA know that university administrations need little more than mission-statement cover. The participants on this FB thread were more than happy to use the TPUSA meme created to attack me in December, 2016. Indeed, while it was removed shortly after being posted, one of the early Facebook comments included this meme:

Then these appeared:

The latter three lack the TPUSA logo, but it’s clear where this fellow got the idea. In any case, what’s true in my case — in Alison Downie’s, Tariq Kahn’s, and George Cicarrellio’s among others — is that a university that respects its faculty and its mission would, at a bear bones minimum, seek to insure their faculty’s safety and would rise to defend the academy as a vital site for free speech.

That’s not what happened at BU. Instead, I’ve been pressured to remove the flag from my office window by BU administration, and I regard it as supremely ironic that the same administration that offers formal recognition and resources to a chapter of Turning Point USA — ostensibly to protect student free speech rights (though they’ve never been endangered) would now act to explicitly censor the free speech of its faculty. I’ve had two meetings. One involved an unannounced visit to convey the message that my actions were likely to negatively impact future freshmen enrollment. He argued that BU had received a number of phone calls to that effect, and that while he “certainly wasn’t telling me what to do,” and that “of course, he respected my right to free speech,” surely my commitment to the university would move me to consider some “middle ground,” or some “alternative form of dissent.” In other words — take down the flag.

The second meeting was more directly threatening. After mouthing the usual disclaimers about respect for free speech, this administrator informed me that if my department was refused permission to search for a new hire (we’re down a faculty member this year), it would be because administrators higher up the food chain had chosen to retaliate against the department for my behavior, and needless to say, this would be my fault. He went on to point out how “pissed” he’d be. He went on to make sure I understood my responsibility to my department preempted “whatever political hill I wanted to die on,” and then essentially ordered me to “go think about it” — six minutes before class. I left even more shaken than when the university provost informed me, on the day before Thanksgiving last semester, that neither BU nor the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Educationwould help to defend me should I be sued (presumably by TPUSA) for what — I still have no idea.

What I do know is that the driving motive in both cases is to protect the institution — whatever the cost to its purported values or mission. It means protectenrollment, regardless whether students can look forward to being educated by professors who take diversity, inclusion, and free expression seriously. Among the many absurdities here is that the likelihood that the Facebook posters shrieking at me were parents of prospective freshmen is fairly slight. But even were this true, it is not a university’s job to accede to parent’s interests, and it’s surely not true that the interests of the parents simply preempt the interests of faculty members with respect to the educations of their children. If that’s the case, why send the student to university at all? Why not just go with TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk, Twitter, 3.31.18:

We have way too many young people going to college We need far less gender studies and philosophy majors, and more electricians, carpenters, welders, and entrepreneurs You don’t need a four year degree to succeed in America.

(https://twitter.com/charliekirk11/status/980047274532392960).

If what we’re willing to settle for are citizens for whom freedom is a paycheck and twenty choices of Catsup at a Wal-Mart, Charlie Kirk’s vision of education — or its end — are enough. If what we want are citizens capable of fomenting dissent, wrestling with vital issues like climate change, economic injustice, a racist prison system, police brutality, gun violence, the corporate expropriation of Native American lands, sexual harassment, a reckless rapidly militarizing federal government — and the malaise that accompanies all of these — we absolutely must sustain in every cell of its being a vibrant university whose members can account themselves as free to pursue the science, the music, the art, the literature, the poetry — and the philosophy that can humanize us beyond knee-jerk nationalism, racism, misogyny, and greed.

As for the upside-down American flag gracing my office window, I will not betray my conscience, my students, the friends who’ve gone to my defense, or my duty to my country. Our country is on a dark path to fascism. I will not be party to this even if my administration chooses to remain willfully oblivious. I will not help President Trump. I will not sell out my students, present or future. Better that BU’s enrollment should shrink than it grow on the false promise that it offers to educate a citizen prepared to engage in the critical thinking our country so desperately needs. It cannot accomplish this mission while at the same time it endeavors to intimidate and silence its most important asset — its committed professors.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania