On Dec. 21, about 30 Trinity University faculty endorsed a press release in protest of the Professor Watchlist run by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), which purports to name instructors who discriminate against conservative students and advance “leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the organization’s website. Jonah Wendt, vice president of TPUSA’s Trinity chapter, penned a post on conservative social news site Hypeline headlined “Trinity University Professors Declare War on Conservative Students,” though he has since toned down the organization’s response to the professors’ protest.
“I don’t think it’s the best idea in the world,” Wendt said of the watchlist. “It’s only going to serve to have people drop out or just not take classes rather than face viewpoints that are in opposition to theirs.”
Wendt deflected criticisms of the watchlist, claiming that it is ultimately ineffective.
“This list doesn’t have teeth. The only people who are going to use [it] are Turning Point USA members who are freaking out that someone has a different opinion than them,” Wendt said. “For the most part, people are going to look at this list and be like, “˜Oh, that’s just something they’re doing for attention,’ and the thing is, it’s actually worked. I think it was more of a publicity stunt than anything.”
Wendt’s Hypeline article claims that the professors’ press release amounts to “a statement pledging to discriminate against conservative students with the sole purpose of satisfying their own personal quest to be on an internet watchlist.” He says the article was motivated by other conservative students who were worried they might face discrimination at Trinity.
“Upon further investigation, I believe that thought process was flawed and not what the teachers intended,” Wendt says. “I think they just wanted, in the wake of Trump’s election, that they want to have some control, so this is their way of saying, ‘Look, we’re going to try to fight back.'”
The public document was endorsed by professors from more than 10 academic departments. The protest was spearheaded by Kelly Lyons, associate professor of biology, and is described by Lyons as an act of defiance.
“We are not going to be successful in getting on the list, that’s not the point. The point is to mock the list,” Lyons said. “The idea is to say, you can make a list, and I’ll be happy to be on it, and you’re not going to scare me.”
Lyons warned against the dangers that watchlists present.
“I think [the list is] toothless until somebody tries to use it to deny somebody tenure, get them out of their position or cause them legal problems,” Lyons said. “We’ve seen these kinds of scare tactics before. We’ve seen them now with the new administration asking for the names of people who are working in gender issues with the state department, or the names of people who are working in issues of climate change or the Paris agreement. Lists are being made, and we should be alarmed by this.”
Lyons further clarified the intention of the professors’ protest.
“To make a statement that we are waging war on conservative students only furthers the perception that somehow this is about conservative students. It’s not about conservative students; it’s about freedom of speech. It’s about fear tactics that are designed to silence certain voices.”
Lyons was critical of Wendt’s recent statements.
“If he thinks that [the article was] the product of a flawed thought process, then he needs to take it down,” Lyons said. “There’s a fine line between flawed logic and lies. We’re not waging war on anybody. In my mind, it’s equivalent to fake news. [Hypeline] might not be a fake news site, but it’s certainly an op-ed news site, and it’s presenting itself as real news.”
When asked whether the Hypeline article would be removed or revised, Wendt said there are no plans to do so.
“I don’t have time to deal with it.”
In drafting the press release, Lyons contacted a number of professors she thought would be sympathetic to the protest. Andrew Kania, associate professor of philosophy, explained why he endorsed the statement.
“I was a little bit of two minds about it,” Kania said. “A reason against [signing it] is that drawing attention to this sort of thing gives it the kind of publicity that you don’t want it to have if you’re against it. But on the other hand, I felt that what was in the letter was true, that these sorts of [lists] are not good and are reflective of a certain sort of turn that American politics seems to be taking. So I thought that I had a certain ethical obligation to add my voice to the group.”
Kania hopes that the protest highlighted one of the difficulties he finds in debates about free speech.
“One of the messages I was hoping that [the press release] sent is that just because you have the right to say something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good or wise thing to say at a particular time or in a particular context. I think that gets lost very quickly in American debates over free speech,” Kania said. “Other relevant moral considerations tend to get ignored because the right to free speech has this rhetorical trumping power in America.”