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Are There Limits to Taxpayer-Sponsored Academic Freedom?

Judge Harold Haley being taken hostage with Angela Davis’s gun taped under his chin. He was killed in the shootout.

I posted last night about Angela Davis’s appearance at UALR tonight (for more information about Davis’s connections to a string of California murders, click here). Davis regularly receives a $10,000 speaking fee, and she’s getting more than that tonight. According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, approximately $4,000 of her fees for tonight’s speech is coming from you, the taxpayers. This raises a serious question: should there be limits on academic freedom when the taxpayers are footing the bill?

I do not intend to imply that Miss Davis should not be allowed to speak. Quite the contrary: I recognize she is well within her constitutional rights to speak, and the school is within their protected rights to host her. But it is misleading to categorize this debate as a “free speech” issue. This is about taxpayer-sponsored speech. 

Does the government have the right to take your money and selectively give it to those who advocate violent revolution? Is this best understood as an issue of academic freedom, or is it the case that those who would seek to destroy academic freedom should not be its beneficiary? What if there is reason to believe that the advocate has a history of violent or even murderous conduct? Can taxpayers have legitimate concerns about these issues? These are the types of questions I asked UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson in an interview yesterday.

To begin, I asked the chancellor if he thought taxpayers and/or state legislators could have legitimate concerns about taxpayer money going to those with extreme political views — not people who just advocate extreme positions, but people who act on them in a violent way:

“I would respond this way: The great thing about universities and colleges is that they embrace the proposition that people ought to be free to hold and advance ideas that are out of the mainstream–even offensive ideas. The assumption that universities and the nation operates are reflected in the Bill of Rights is that you are free to put your ideas out there, including criticisms and complaints about the establishment and then the establishment and everyone else is free to examine your reasoning and your evidence and try to shoot holes in it. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Some new, out of the mainstream ideas certainly come into the marketplace that way and some then may then be adopted for the long run — or they may be rejected. 

In the case of this speaker, to my knowledge, she’s been a law-abiding citizen for many years. The lecture is sponsored by the Cooper Honors Program in the English Department. Students like to see and hear prominent people, controversial people up close. From an educational point of view, it’s a way to get students interested in big ideas. Sometimes those are out of the mainstream. Our country has a long history of welcoming ideas out of the mainstream ideas.”

Perhaps “shoot holes in it” was not the best analogy the chancellor could have used.  And it is less than clear that Angela Davis’s ideas are “big ideas” — this is a person who has been a long-time member of Communist Party, was involved in a string of murders, and is now making a living by advocating for the abolition of prisons. 

I told the chancellor I was not against Davis’s free speech. In fact, I told him I thought she should be allowed to speak, but I was concerned, as are legislators, that taxpayer money is being given to her. Then I asked him if he was familiar with the Marin County Shootout, the incident that almost landed Angela Davis in a penitentiary. He said no, and asked me to elaborate. I told him about the incident — how guns purchased just days before by Angela Davis were used to slaughter four courtroom hostages in 1970. The chancellor’s memory must have been jarred. He told me,

“I’m very much aware that she was a controversial figure long ago — as I recall there was a trial in which she was acquitted.”

As to whether or not we are now expected to believe Angela Davis is completely innocent, the chancellor said,

“I’m in no position to have an opinion on those events that happened many years ago. What I know is, there are faculty members who think that it would be a good educational experience for students to hear her. I’m certainly approving of them exercising their judgement and inviting a controversial person to campus. To my knowledge, she’s been a law-abiding person for many, many years.”

Lastly, I asked the chancellor what he would say to Arkansas taxpayers and legislators who are concerned about the spending of their money in this way:

“I thought that in a way I had already spoken to that. In this particular case, there are several units and offices on campus that have contributed a little bit of money. Some of them are contributing private money. I would certainly say it is appropriate to provide for experiences outside the classroom to provide educational experiences for students.” 

I find many of these comments by the chancellor quite troubling. He seemed blase about the fact that taxpayers are on the hook for a large portion of Davis’s fees. For the chancellor, the issue was entirely about free speech and academic freedom. Remarkably, he seemed to be under the impression that a criminal trial somehow settled the historical issue of Angela Davis’s moral culpability for multiple murders. Of course, criminal acquittals cannot substitute for historical verdicts: a criminal trial is not just a fact-finding enterprise. Rather, it is a complex process — one that serves multiple functions — in which all sorts of evidence is never allowed to be heard; to state the obvious, a criminal trial never reaches a judgment about guilt unless the guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and someone who thinks that a criminal acquittal demonstrates actual innocence betrays a large ignorance about the nature of the criminal justice system. In the real world, we have to make decisions all the time, even if we can’t prove things beyond a reasonable doubt: it is highly irresponsible to pretend that the judgment of a criminal court settles the matter of Davis’s guilt, and (because anyone who is familiar with the case would have to conclude that there is a reasonable possibility that Davis was part of a criminal conspiracy) it is startling that university administrators who are charged with responsible administration of taxpayer money would pay so little attention to these concerns. More particularly, it is hard to view the chancellor’s agnosticism about Davis — namely, that he is in no position to have an opinion about Davis’s past actions — as morally or intellectually serious. If the people who are funding Davis’s appearance at UALR aren’t supposed to make judgments about what she has done in the past, why on earth would anyone believe that university administrators who are passing out thousands of dollars to their chosen speakers are behaving in a responsible fashion?

Free speech is not the same thing as taxpayer-sponsored speech. When administrators are making controversial decisions about how taxpayer money should be spent, they should do more than close their eyes to the facts about the speakers they support. As Senator Rapert said yesterday, it is difficult to legislate good judgment — for the most part, lawmakers and taxpayers are forced to trust the judgment of those put in place to make these decisions. However, when these administrators make bad decisions, taxpayers have a right to raise questions and demand answers.

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11 thoughts on “Are There Limits to Taxpayer-Sponsored Academic Freedom?

  • Joe Taxpayer

    I’ll give Joel Anderson a little more credibility on this issue when someone in the university invites, say, Eric Rudolph or Scott Roeder to come speak. In academia, only leftists are allowed to be violent extremists yet retain their reputation.

  • elwood

    I find it humorous and slightly frightening that you think a person acquitted by a court of law should still be guilty because of your opinion to the contrary. Post some evidence or a link to a contrary argument rather than your intended smears so that reasonable people can discern for themselves.

    • Nic Horton

      In that story, which outlines the facts of Davis’s trial, you’ll learn that the defense never disputed that the guns used to kill judge Haley and three others belonged to Davis. In fact, they admitted it — and the guns were returned to Davis after the trial.

      I never said Davis was guilty of murder — I said she was culpable. I’ll be curious to hear if you are able to come to any other conclusion yourself after reading the facts of the case. Your haste in defending Davis’s innocence is unwise.

  • @Elwood: The details of Angela Davis’s case are pretty well-known. Two days before the courthouse shooting, she bought the shotgun that was used to blow the presiding judge’s head off. One day before the shooting, Jackson (the fellow who armed the prisoners) sidled into the courtroom and watched the proceedings while Davis waited outside. I personally find it very hard to believe Angela Davis’s story — that a close friend of Angela Davis decided to steal Angela Davis’s gun (that he, with exquisite timing, had somehow managed to obtain within a 48 hour period) and bust Angela Davis’s boyfriend out of jail entirely without Angela Davis’s knowledge.

    Notably, it wasn’t the first time that Angela Davis’s guns had ended up in the hands of Black Panthers. A year before, a police-Panther confrontation had resulted in the confiscation of a gun that was determined to be Davis’s. She claimed that she had lost it; a year later, she claimed that Jackson had stolen her shotgun. Maybe you really believe that Angela Davis is just the type of person who loses a gun now and then. To me, this seems unlikely.

    Come on, Elwood, what do you think about Jackson’s and Davis’s visit to the courtroom one day before? They didn’t have any pending cases there. You think they were just, what, sightseeing?

  • Alan Gable

    I can’t follow you this time. Really enjoy the site and I like that you are asking necessary questions.

    But in this instance, it would be beneficial to ease your foot off the gas. Your target here, went beyond asking relevant questions about taxpayer funding and turned into a pretty direct smear.

    For someone so interested in a person’s history, you have recklessly run roughshod over the reputation and actions of the Chancellor. You neglected any mention of his unwavering service to the highest quality post-secondary education in
    Arkansas. You made not even a passing comment about Dr. Anderson’s clear headed and visionary approaches with regards to racial issues which are very much a part of his job. And the underlying assumption that he’s been anything less than a faithful steward of taxpayer funds is offensive and short-sided and makes you look foolish to anyone who has ever met the man.

    Joel Anderson is a good man. He’s earned more than your disdain. You haven’t done your homework. You just lost your credibility and you lost a reader.

    • Nic Horton

      So, you agree with the chancellor’s decision to pay Angela Davis $4,000 of taxpayer funds?

    • Nic Horton

      Obviously you have some sort of personal relationship with the chancellor. That’s fine. He seemed like a nice man and I appreciated him taking the time to visit with me. But I’m curious to know which sections of my remarks, specifically, qualify as “smears?” Is it when I said his comments were “troubling?” Or the highly incendiary opinion that giving Angela Davis taxpayer money was “highly irresponsible?”

      I’d also like to know how disagreeing with you ruins my credibility? Any number of good decisions by the chancellor or anyone else does not erase bad decisions — I would hope most reasonable people could conclude that this was a very bad decision.

      You seem to be in the camp that thinks we don’t have the right to question this decision by the school. I find that highly troubling.

      Thanks for reading.

    • Mark Johnson

      Mr. Gable – I consider myself a friend of Chancellor Joel Anderson, yet am appalled by his judgment in this case. You attack Mr. Horton for calling this particular decision by Dr. Anderson (a public official) into question. It seems that you believe that if you like someone, as I like Joel Anderson, that they cannot ever be questioned. You have made an ad hominem attack on Mr. Horton, who I believe laid out the facts quite clearly, and gave Dr. Anderson an opportunity to respond.

  • Val Emmons

    I find it interesting that faculty want her speaking so badly that they donated private funds. What are they teaching our young adults! And it sickens me that taxpayer dollars are being used to pay this hack on society!

  • Gary kirby

    I know for a fact that I work too hard for my tax dollars to be spent this way, paying for a punk hoodlum to influence our young people in what most likely will be a very negative way.


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