How a Group of Instructors Is Standing Up to the Right-Wing Outrage Machine

September 13, 2017

Photo courtesy of Noel A. Cazenave
Noel Cazenave, a sociologist at UConn and an organizer of the “Stand Up and Speak Out” campaign: “I want them to know that we are not going to be silenced.”
This week 80 professors across the country will begin their classes by reading a statement that decries what they see as the hate speech and threats that progressive faculty members have faced for controversial remarks.

Reading the statement is part of the "Stand Up and Speak Out" campaign, a weeklong effort to defend minority faculty members who faced intense criticism this summer for things they said or were reported to have said, said Noel A. Cazenave, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut and one of the group’s organizers.

The campaign is also among the first to pre-emptively answer more-potent threats made to faculty members. (Another recently formed group focusing on similar issues is a coalition of scholars called the Campus Anti-Fascist Network.) "Faculty speaking out against racial and ethnic oppression have become the primary targets of attempts at suppression," reads part of the statement. "Such efforts undermine the university’s pivotal role in the production of knowledge and science, their translation into public policy, and their timely dissemination to the public."

When professors like Tommy Curry, an associate professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University at College Station, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, and Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, in Connecticut, faced online criticism from news outlets like Campus Reform and Fox News for their statements, Mr. Cazenave said he and some colleagues worried that the incidents would increase.

After Mr. Williams needed to flee the Trinity campus for his and his family’s safety, Mr. Cazenave said he realized something more had to be done.

On June 18, Mr. Williams wrote two controversial messages on his Facebook page, and he later shared an article that argued that minority first responders to the shootings at a congressional baseball practice should have let the white victims die. At first Mr. Williams stood by his comments, but later he apologized and said his words had been misrepresented. On June 26 Trinity’s president put Mr. Williams on leave. He was eventually cleared after an investigation.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Cazenave are friends. They often have brunch with other sociologists, Mr. Cazenave said. "When it happened to Johnny, these highly orchestrated right-wing attacks," Mr. Cazenave said, "there was talk about us not just defending Johnny, but taking a more offensive type of position."

Mr. Cazenave said he hoped that in reading the statement students would understand the risks that progressive black professors face when they speak out, he said. "I want them to know that we are not going to be silenced."

‘The Easy Way Out’

Sometimes student-shot footage of faculty members in class triggers a backlash from right-wing websites. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, conservative students were advised during a workshop to use social media in their political activism.

Students were told that when professors begin ranting about progressive issues, or speak out against the Trump administration, they should film them with cellphones and later post the videos to social media.

“We have to send a message to university presidents that they have to protect the fundamental values of universities.”
The campaign also aims to persuade college presidents to stand by their instructors, not scold them or take sides, when they face possibly life-threatening criticism on social media for their controversial remarks, Mr. Cazenave said. "We have to send a message to university presidents that they have to protect the fundamental values of universities," he said. "They cannot look for the easy way out."

When five-year-old remarks by Mr. Curry in a YouTube interview about violence and racism resurfaced in Rod Dreher’s American Conservative column "When Is It OK to Kill Whites," the professor faced death threats. But instead of defending him, Michael K. Young, president of Texas A&M, issued a statement calling Mr. Curry’s comments "disturbing."

After faculty members and students criticized Mr. Young’s initial statement, he apologized in a new statement for how his initial comments had been taken.

Mr. Cazenave read the "Stand Up and Speak Out"statement wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt in both of his classes this week, "The Social Construction of Happiness" and a course on poverty, he said. That day he provided students with context for why the statement was needed.

In an email, Jennifer P. Sims, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, wrote that she had told her students about how the internet could be used to fuel harassment campaigns, and showed several examples, including the Professor Watchlist — an effort, promoted by the right-wing group Turning Point USA, "to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom."

"Tying in to last class’s topic of the internet, which ended with a section on how the internet can be used to combat racism," she wrote, "I went over our statement and campaign, noting that we are utilizing not only verbal statements but internet dissemination as well to combat these organized attacks."

After this week, Mr. Cazenave said he was not sure if and how the campaign would continue. Some volunteers have expressed interest in expanding the campaign and going beyond reading the statement, to advocate more forcefully for faculty members.

"It empowers people," he said. "It makes people feel that we’re not victims, individual victims, but we’re a part of a caring collective that will stand up for all of us."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.