Shortly after Mike Adams took the stage at the University of Montana, he posed a single question, asking if those in attendance were truly dedicated to defending the First Amendment.
Adams, a conservative firebrand, spent the next hour of his Tuesday night talk using the Ku Klux Klan, Muslims, gays and the abortion of African-American babies to build his argument – often to laughter and applause – that free speech can be uncomfortable for liberals when it runs counter to their beliefs.
Even so, Adams admitted that the title of his talk, “The Death of Liberal Bias in Higher Education,” was somewhat misleading, suggesting that conservatives miss the point when they argue that liberalism is “what’s wrong” with higher education.
The problem, he said, runs much deeper.
“Conservatives are always worried about sending their kids and grandkids off to university because they’ll be exposed to liberal bias in higher education,” said Adams. “That’s absolutely false. Liberal bias in higher education has been replaced by something far more dangerous.”
That, he said, was liberal discrimination.
Adams, who was interrupted several times throughout his talk by protesters — each quickly escorted from the venue by private security — chastised the University of Montana for attempting to prevent his speech.
Yet the night’s biggest attack came from Sen. Steve Daines, in a video message, who lauded Adams for speaking with “faith and conscience.” The Republican lawmaker also praised Maria Cole, who funded much of the event as part of the annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture series.
Some left the venue when Daines blamed the university for causing the contentiousness around Adams’ talk.
“Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth),” Daines said in the message. “Believe it or not, that’s the University of Montana’s motto. But by seeking to stop Mike Adams from coming to speak at this campus because of his faith and politics, I don’t see a lot of light, or dedication to truth, coming from the journalism school leaders.”
Daines didn’t mention that University of Montana president Seth Bodnar had actually defended Adams’ right to speak on campus, nor did he raise concern over the tone and content of Adams’ past social media posts.
Rather, Daines played solely to the evening’s conservative audience. The night opened with a Christian prayer — no other prayers were offered — and several laughed as protesters were taken from the venue.
“By gathering here this evening, you’re sending a strong message that our freedom of speech is worth fighting for,” Daines said. “You’re challenging leaders of our state’s academic institutions that faith and conscience can be swept aside when people walk through university gates.”
It was late last year when the School of Journalism first raised objections to Adam’s talk, fearing it was giving an accused bigot a free platform on which to spread his message of intolerance, hate and discrimination.
And while Cole, as the evening’s sponsor, introduced Adams as a popular professor among his students, she neglected to mention the several petitions circulated on the University of North Carolina campus, where Adams works, seeking his removal.
“Speech can be provocative and challenging,” Cole told the audience. “It can produce discomfort and unrest. I believe we have a responsibility to encourage the kind of dialogue that produces some discomfort. Without it, we inhibit our own growth and learning. Our society needs open debate.”
Adams said it was liberal bias that brought him into the profession of teaching in a college setting. He thanked a left-leaning professor who staunchly supported former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal” politics for opening his eyes to the ills of the college setting.
“Liberalism presupposes tolerance, tolerance presupposes moral judgment, and the existence of moral judgment guarantees that you’ll be offended from time to time,” Adams said. “And that’s OK, because that’s the price of living in a free society.”
Adams suggested that higher education is faced with three primary threats, many coming from college administrators, not the pipe-smoking professor of his past.
Rather, he said, it’s the “systematic policies” of college administrators that pose the greatest threat to the First Amendment and its constitutional guarantees.
Adams, who has been championed by some and criticized by others for his divisive language and blunt statements, blamed campus administrators for pulling funding from student groups that they don’t agree with, and he suggested they were threatening the “freedom of association.”
“In order to have an effective way of exercising your freedom of association to advance a belief, you have to advance that belief with people who share your belief,” he said. “That’s a necessary part of freedom of association, working together with people who share those values.”
The bulk of the night’s protesters were kept outside, and those who did get a ticket were quickly silenced when they raised objection to Adams’ opinions. Some had their signs torn away by security guards and all were quickly escorted from the venue.
“There is no heckler’s veto,” Adams shouted at one point. “I will speak this evening and if you shout and try to interrupt me, you’ll cut into your own free speech rights in Q&A. I assure you, if you continue, we’ll arrest the right person.”
One of those people was Rose Rogers, who interrupted Adams’ presentation by calling him a “bigot.”
“I came out tonight because I think he creates a safe space for bigots, and he uses the First Amendment as a guise for transphobic, racist, sexist, xenophobic statements,” said Rogers. “That’s not OK and I wanted to make sure that point was made.”
She added, “He stopped to address me and threatened to take away everyone else in the crowd’s free speech due to me saying something.”
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.