For Campus Free Speech

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Purnima Bose

SINCE THE NOVEMBER 2016 elections, campus controversies regarding free speech have become more frequent and received much publicity. Journalists and academics have pontificated on the seeming illiberal nature of contemporary academia and politicians have been only too willing to share their wisdom: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made campus free speech the subject of an address at Georgetown University Law School; members of Congress have convened hearings on the topic; and the commander-in-chief himself has moralized via Twitter.(1)

In a familiar litany, commentators cite incidents at Middlebury College over a speech by Charles Murray, at the University of California in response to an invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos, and at the University of Wisconsin during Ben Shapiro’s lecture as evidence for a campus environment that is hostile to right-wing viewpoints.

As a progressive academic, I resent the right-wing incursion on universities, but am also troubled by a climate of intellectual fear among some on the campus left, which has resulted in demands for speaking invitations to be rescinded and the heckling of conservative pundits.

Murray and Yiannopoulos

At Middlebury College in March 2017, protestors disrupted a speech by Charles Murray, who was touting his recent book Coming Apart, a diagnosis of the malaise afflicting white-working class Americans.

Murray’s earlier book, The Bell Curve, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, gained him notoriety for positing genetic differences as the explanation for social inequality. That scholarship has been discredited for drawing on dubious research linking race and achievement.(2)

Murray’s shoddy research along with the offensive conclusions of The Bell Curve have led many students and faculty members at various universities to question the wisdom of inviting Murray to institutions dedicated to advancing knowledge and the public good.

Protestors at Middlebury prevented Murray from completing his speech, mobbing him as he exited the venue and injuring the professor, Allison Stanger, who, in spite of her disagreement with his views, had agreed to moderate the session. As if to prove an adage among women faculty members that no good deed goes unpunished, Stanger suffered whiplash and a concussion in exchange for her institutional service.(3)

Earlier in February 2017, the University of California (Berkeley) cancelled a scheduled talk by then-Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who had been making the rounds of the College Republicans speaking circuit.

The Yiannopoulos brand, as Robert Cohen points out, involved “hectoring rather than logical discourse and [was] more concerned with drawing and exciting large crowds with shock jock sloganeering and show biz gloss” all under “spotlights, Broadway-style lighting” accompanying a backdrop of “huge photo displays of himself a la Hollywood.”(4)

Such props set the stage for his rants against women, “cunts” as he informed the audience at Western Virginia University, and the transgendered community in screeds delivered and sometimes directed at individual students at the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and the University of Delaware.(5)

Twitter had permanently banned him previously for instigating a racist and sexist campaign against comedian and actress Leslie Jones, whose role in the feminist redo of Ghostbusters had apparently offended his sensibilities. At Berkeley, thousands of students turned out to protest Yiannopoulos’s talk.(6) About 150 rioted, causing $100,000 in damage and providing grist for right-wing characterizations of the left as violent.(7)

Ironically, the reaction to intolerant and anti-intellectual speech ended up reproducing the very values it had sought to repudiate. No less a personage than the U.S. president weighed in and threatened government retaliation for the cancellation of Yiannopolous’s appearance, tweeting: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”(8)

It would take the revelation of Yiannop­oulos’s comments condoning pedophilia for conservative groups such as the American Conservative Union to finally withdraw their speaking invitations from him.(9)

Campus Confrontations

Several months before the Yiannopoulos fiasco, in September 2016, Berkeley had shelled out $600,000 for security to enable Ben Shapiro, editor of The Daily Wire website and a syndicated columnist, to speak at the invitation of College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation.(10)

A former high profile editor at Breitbart, he had quit in protest of its treatment of one of its reporters, who had been manhandled by Corey Lewandowski at a Trump rally. Shapiro had also disavowed Trump, and consequently become the target of anti-Semitic and racist attacks.(11)

While he has made inflammatory and statistically-questionable assertions about Muslims, claiming, for instance, that 800 million are radicalized, Shapiro’s views on race and inequality are fairly consistent with mainstream conservative ones.(12)

He acknowledges “the collective sin of the United States in promulgating” Jim Crow and slavery, but avers that people of color should eschew victimhood and take control of their individual destinies in a recycled version of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps philosophy.

The weight of history aside, Shapiro believes, social inequality arises from individuals not trying and working hard enough. In a profanity-laced speech, Shapiro took aim at both “white supremacy” and the “hard left,” the latter for devaluing the United States and failing to cite specific evidence for its claims that inequality is structurally produced.(13)

Views of this kind most likely provoked student protest at Shapiro’s appearance at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in November 2016. About 20 people, in an audience of approximately 400, chanted “Shame!” and “Safety!,” disrupting the first half-hour of his speech, cheekily titled “Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.” Their chants elicited responses from some audience members of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and “Free Speech Matters!”

The protestors finally left at the urging of the police, with  a few screaming “Fuck white supremacy!” on their way out. Shapiro retaliated in kind by giving them the finger. The majority of his reputed $15,000 speaking fee was paid by the national office of the Young America’s Foundation, whose student chapter had issued the invitation; University of Wisconsin student fees accounted for $4,000 of Shapiro’s honorarium.(14)

At Indiana University (Bloomington) where I work, faculty members Les Lenkowsky and Aurelian Craiutu invited Charles Murray to speak in April 2017 as part of the Tocqueville Program’s lecture series on politics in the age of Trump.

The lecture was to be jointly co-sponsored with a nonregistered student group on campus AEI at IU (an affiliate of the American Enterprise Institute); the AEI parent chapter picked up the sizable tab for Murray’s speech (his fee typically runs between $20,001 and $30,000, an obscenely high amount for a university lecture).(15)

The invitation initiated a heated debate among progressive faculty that echoed themes in the national theater. Some faculty and students signed an open letter to Provost Lauren Robel, asking her to disinvite Murray, which she rightly refused to do.

In an op-ed published after his talk, she defended her decision, explaining: “Our democracy depends on denying to those in power the right to pick and choose which viewpoints we citizens are allowed to hear. But our academic community depends, distinctively, on more than mere tolerance. It depends on engagement with ideas, perhaps especially with ideas we believe are wrong or flawed. That engagement sits at the very heart of what it means to be an academic community. It is, or ought to be, what makes us distinctive in the world.”(16) Yes to that.

Notwithstanding these laudable sentiments, the administration seemed more anxious to avoid a repeat of Middlebury College than with encouraging debate. Access was restricted to those holding tickets, and the Q-and-A consisted of pre-selected queries that were solicited from audience members before Murray’s speech.(17)

The police presence too was excessive: 70 officers from IUPD, the Bloomington Police Department, and Indiana State Police monitored the crowd of 300 that had gathered behind metal barricades. One student was thrice shoved to the ground by a state trooper and another was briefly detained for disorderly conduct.(18)

Protestors screamed the tired obscenity “Fuck Charles Murray,” danced to music and banged on pots, providing a muted soundtrack to Murray’s speech inside Franklin Hall.


The invitation to Murray was ill conceived. If the intention was to provoke thoughtful reflection on contemporary politics in relation to the white working class, this goal was not met by procuring a speaker with shaky scholarly credentials affiliated with a conservative think tank and entangling the university in a financial relationship with that outfit by accepting sponsorship money from them.

An invitation to Michael Kimmel, a distinguished sociologist at SUNY Stonybrook who has written extensively about masculinity and race, could have yielded insights on white discontented voters. Alternatively, a discussion with students across the ideological spectrum about free speech, civility and contemporary politics, as was organized by both IU’s Hutton Honors College and the Political and Civic Engagement Program, would have been more illuminating.

Once the invitation was issued, however, I believe Murray should have been allowed to speak without fearing he would be shouted down or physically attacked. The subsequent vandalizing of Craiutu’s office door with anti-racist slogans, along with having his lock clogged with glue, was decidedly uncool and troubling.

Indeed some protestors sounded like right-wing caricatures of the left. One graduate student charged that IU “has fostered hate and hostility toward marginalized groups,” claiming that students “know that this is a sexist, homophobic, racist, ableist institution.”(19)

This is hyperbolic rhetoric. IU has made phenomenal progress in diversifying its student body from 2012-2017, increasing the number of underrepresented students by 38% and ramping up its recruitment of Hudson-Holland scholars.(20) The university was also very responsive to the No Sweat! student group and played a leadership role in the Big Ten in agreeing to join the Worker Rights Consortium.

The student’s characterization of a hate-fostering university is difficult to square with IU’s part in desegregating the city, pioneering sexuality studies through the Kinsey Institute, creating multiple academic and support centers on campus committed to diversity and ethnic studies, and offering the first doctoral degree in the country in gender studies. A perusal of course offerings in the academic bulletin additionally reveals a scholarly engagement across the disciplines with race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and social class and inequality.

To be taken seriously, charges of institutional discrimination must be grounded in facts to avoid duplicating the modus operandi of right-wing conservatives who promiscuously bandy assertions about race and social class untethered to reality.


Within debates about campus free speech, caricatures and incoherence abound. In a joint hearing on “Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses” before the House of Representatives on July 27, 2017, references to “microaggressions” (everyday verbal and behavioral indignities experienced by people of color), “trigger warnings” (notices that course content might be upsetting to students who have experienced past trauma), and “snowflakes” (delicate souls from marginalized communities who will melt away if their feelings are hurt) pepper the speeches of conservative witnesses and Republican politicians, who decry the illiberal nature of universities.

Ben Shapiro, for example, testified that cancelling lectures “destroys free speech” and “turns students into snowflakes, craven and pathetic, looking for an excuse to be offended so they can earn points in the intersectional Olympics and then use those points as a club with which to beat opponents.”(21)

During these same hearings, the comedian Adam Carolla, raised the legitimate question of whether “true facts and research [are] being sidelined because it’s taboo to someone’s feelings?” He then undercut his question with a silly example: “But do you really want an engineer who designed the plane you’re flying in to feel that the reality of gravity is a Caucasian microaggression because it was discovered by Newton?”(22) In discussions of microaggressions, references to Newton and gravity rarely appear.

In these hearings, an elusive entity that conservatives call “the hard left” (presumably opposed to the “soft left”) is accused of cancelling speeches, inciting incivility on campus, and conflating speech with conduct. Debates over campus free speech often involve invocations of “hate speech” of which, New York Law School Professor Nadine Strossen notes, there is “no specific, accepted legal definition.”(23)

“Hate speech” has acquired the functional meaning of expression that disparages individuals or groups on the basis of their identities. In spite of its lack of legal definition, “hate speech” enjoys First Amendment protection.

Some leftists on campus worry that the moniker “free speech” has become an alibi for “hate speech,” providing a cover for those on the right to voice repugnant views about specific groups of people.

For their part, conservatives argue that “the hard left” names some forms of speech “verbal violence,” which then becomes a justification for the necessity of “physical violence” from progressive students and faculty “to stop” said expression.(24)

Threat from the Right

While any incident of violence during a lecture is one too many, campus brawls are relatively few. By making free speech into a cudgel to pound the left, conservatives cast racism as primarily causing hurt feelings rather than actual harm. They dismiss the idea that educational institutions have a responsibility to create an environment that affirms the dignity and equality of their staff, students, and faculty, particularly those from marginalized groups.(25)

But the concern for free speech on the part of right-wing pundits is disingenuous. They are quite eager to limit expression with which they disagree, including talks by individuals who support Palestinian sovereignty and the BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) Movement and protests directed against conservative speakers.(26)

The pattern of free speech campus controversies suggests an organized strategy by conservative groups to make ideological and political incursions into university spaces that have traditionally been aligned with liberal values.

The reason that universities trend liberal and left is that well-informed, thoughtful people who have chosen a vocation devoted to reading, writing, teaching and questioning received truths tend not to be taken in with conservative bunk. They generally support equal rights and are committed to the democratic process, which has been hijacked over the last two decades by wealthy individuals and corporations.

To counter this liberal orientation, groups such as the American Enterprise Institute and Young America’s Foundation partner with their baby organizations and chapters of College Republicans to sponsor right-wing lectures, covering a large chunk of the exorbitant speaker fees commanded by these provocateurs.

The inevitable indignant response to these invitations then becomes used as evidence of the necessity for state legislators to regulate debate on campus by instituting harsh disciplinary measures against those students motivated to protest. Under the banner of protecting free speech, conservative groups are clamping down and penalizing student protest.

Make no mistake: this is a well-heeled campaign underwritten by the likes of the Bradley, Koch and Walton foundations through the auspices of the Arizona based, ultra-conservative think tank, the Goldwater Institute [GI], which also has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council.(27)

Under the aegis of GI, Stanley Kurtz has drafted model legislation “designed to change the balance of forces contributing to the current baleful national climate for campus free speech.”(28) Some might remember Kurtz for his energetic campaign against Title VI funded area studies programs in 2003 for being critical of U.S. foreign policy and under the sway of Edward Said and “his post-colonial theory.”(29)

Kurtz’s earlier grousing against Said was interpreted by many as attempted censorship of Said’s academic freedom and his eloquent condemnations of the Israeli Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Criticism of Israel continues to concern Kurtz, who justifies the need for political meddling on campuses because of “campaigns to press universities to divest their endowments of holdings in oil companies or companies based in the state of Israel. At any university, such divestment would tend to inhibit intellectual freedom.”(30)

How exactly academic freedom is imperiled by student movements advocating divestment in fossil fuels and Israeli corporations, he does not explain.

What is clear, however, is the Goldwater Institute’s intent to penalize students for protesting right-wing speakers who are promoting views that are offensive to the sensibilities of the majority of students and academics.

The GI draft legislation contains several troubling aspects: it authorizes disciplinary mechanisms, including suspension and expulsion, against students and “anyone under the jurisdiction of the institution who interferes with the free expression of others;” it limits the right of assembly and “spontaneous expressive activity” on campuses, prohibiting demonstrations from “substantially disrupt[ing] the functioning of the institution;” and it allows the attorney general or those whose “expressive rights are violated” to collect court costs, “reasonable attorney fees,” and “damages.”

The model legislation also mandates that universities “strive to remain neutral… on the public policy controversies of the day” and compels campus administrations to compile annual reports on free speech incidents for “the public, board of trustees, the governor, and the state legislature.”(31)

Invoking lofty and pious concerns with free speech, Republicans have introduced bills in a number of states modeled on the GI’s draft “Campus Free Speech Act,” where they are wending their way through the legislative process in California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Legislation that draws on GI draft lan­guage has already passed in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.(32)

Defend Speech, Fight Injustice

Shouting down right-wing speakers on campus by liberal and left students seems doubly wrong to me because vigorous argumentation is an important value that has always promoted the expansion of freedom, and it provides a pretext for conservative groups and politicians to introduce legislation aimed at having a chilling effect on progressive student activism.

Over the last six decades, students have acted as our collective conscience, voicing their outrage and opposing the Vietnam War, segregation, apartheid, sweatshops, deportations of the undocumented, state violence against African Americans, and, most recently, the NRA’s stranglehold on elected officials, among other issues.

Students have pushed us to examine our beliefs and the actions of our government under the conviction that a better world is possible. They should have the freedom to express their views without fearing they will be suspended or expelled for exercising their first amendment rights.

Students should devise methods to protest right-wing speech without resorting to the heckler’s veto so they can get on with the important work of organizing against an administration intent on hoarding civil liberties, capital, and social privileges for the elite.

To clarify: I support pickets and protests against the fascists. But I am against shouting down speakers and believe other forms of protest are more effective in the lecture hall. We had a talk by Elliott Abrams at IU last month and the protestors did a nice job of making their points: they attended his lecture, stood silently, and held signs with information on his record. After 10 minutes of his talk, they left the hall, but not before giving him copies of their flyers. Another protestor flyered the windows of the lecture hall with the signs, forcing Abrams to see reminders of his misdeeds for the duration of his lecture.

For the health of our democracy, we should all be alert to this latest legislative assault on debate and public education in the midst of the quotidian outrages emanating from the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we ought to vigorously support freedom of speech across the board, as a matter of principle and because a commitment to critique is one of the hallmarks of what is best in left politics.

The wisest and most effective way to advance struggles against injustice is to argue strenuously against it.


  1. The text of Sessions’ speech, “A National Recommitment to Free Speech on Campus is Long Overdue,” is available at Time,
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  2. For an analysis of Murray and Herrnstein’s sources, see Charles Lane, “The Tainted Sources of The Bell Curve,” The New York Review of Books, December 1, 1994. See also the Southern Poverty Law Center’s page on Charles Murray:
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  3. Allison Stanger, “Understanding the Angry Mob that Gave Me a Concussion,” The New York Times, March 3, 2017.
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  4. Robert Cohen, “Yiannopoulos and the Moral Crisis of Campus Conservatism,” Inside Higher Ed, February 23, 2017.
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  5. Cohen. For excerpts of Yiannopoulos comments at the University of Colorado, see Abigail Edge, “Two Nights on Milo Yiannopoulos’s Campus Tour: As Offensive as You’d Imagine,” The Guardian (US Edition), January 28, 2017.
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  6. Mike Isaac, “Twitter Bars Milo Yiannopoulos in Wake of Leslie Jones’s Reports of Abuse,” The New York Times, July 20, 2016.
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  7. Julia Carrie Wong, “UC Berkeley Cancels ‘Alt-Right’ Speaker Milo Yiannopoulos as Thousands Protest,” The Guardian (US Edition), February 2, 2017. For estimates of the damage and university claims that the violence was instigated by outsiders, see Madison Park and Kyung Lah’s “Berkeley Protests of Yiannopoulos Caused $100,000 in Damage,” CNN, February 2, 2017.
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  8. Matt Hamilton, Peter H. King, Teresa Watanabe, and Shelby Grad, “It’s a Free Speech Class as Milo Yiannopoulos is Shutdown at UC Berkeley,” LA Times, February 2, 2017.
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  9. Scott Jaschik, “Different Kind of Disinvitation for Yiannopoulos,” Insider Higher Ed, February 21, 2017.
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  10. Katy Steinmetz, “The Campus Culture Wars,” Time, October 23, 2017.
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  11. Bill Lueders, “’Shut Up, Already!’ The New Battle Over Campus Free Speech,” The Progressive, August 1, 2017.‘shut-up-already-’-the-new-battle-over-campus-free-speech/.
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  12. Jon Greenburg, “Ben Shapiro Says a Majority of Muslims are Radical,” Punditfact, November 5, 2014.
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  13. See the footage of Shapiro’s speech at Berkeley: Ian Schwartz, “Ben Shapiro: Teaching Minorities They are Perpetual Victims is False, Backwards, and Hurts Them,” RealClear Politics, September 16, 2017.
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  14. Bill Lueders, “’Shut Up, Already!’ The New Battle Over Campus Free Speech,” The Progressive, August 1, 2017.‘shut-up-already’-the-new-battle-over-campus-free-speech/.
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  15. Lydia Gerike and Sarah Verschoor, “IUPD Costs Revealed for Charles Murray’s Speech,” Indiana Daily Student, April 27, 2017.
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  16. Lauren Robel, “Provost Robel Addresses Charles Murray Visit,” Indiana Daily Student, April 17, 2017.
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  17. Hannah Boufford, “IU Students, Bloomington Residents React to Charles Murray Speech,” Indiana Daily Student, April 11, 2017.
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  18. Sarah Verschoor, “No Injuries or Damages Reported after Tuesday’s Protests,” Indiana Daily Student, April 12, 2017.
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  19. Hannah Boufford, “IU Community Works to Balance Free Speech, Inclusive Culture,” Indiana Daily Student, April 17, 2017.
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  20. Lauren Robel, “State of the Campus 2017,” March 7, 2017,
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  21. Ben Shapiro, Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules and the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Serial No. 115-30, July 27, 2017: 24-25.
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  22. Adam Carolla, Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules and the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Serial No. 115-30, July 27, 2017:29.
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  23. Nadine Strossen, “Written Testimony,” Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules and the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Serial No. 115-30, July 27, 2017: 10.
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  24. Ben Shapiro, Joint Hearing, 23.
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  25. Sigal R. Ben-Porath, Free Speech on Campus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), Proquest Ebook Central.
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  26. Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US, September 2015,
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  27. “Goldwater Institute,” Sourcewatch,
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  28. For the Goldwater Institute’s model legislation, see Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher’s “Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal,” Goldwater Institute,
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  29. For more information on Stanley Kurtz’s charges against Title VI funded centers, see his “Studying Title VI,” The National Review, June 16, 2003,
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  30. Stanley Kurtz, James Manley and Jonathan Butcher, “Campus Free Speech,” 5.
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  31. Kurtz, Manley and Butcher, 20-22.
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  32. Neal H. Hutchens, “New Legislation May Make Free Speech on Campus Less Free,” The Conversation, June 27, 2017.
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May-June 2018, ATC 194