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Arizona legislature forms committee to probe free speech concerns at ASU

By Cameron Arcand | The Center Square

Following a free speech controversy at Arizona State University, the state legislature is forming a new joint committee to examine “freedom of expression” in the state’s public universities.

ASU shut down the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development after its main donor, Tom Lewis, pulled funding after a controversial event featuring conservative personalities Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager.

The former executive director, Ann Atkinson, said in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “I Paid for Free Speech at Arizona State” that she was fired by the university for organizing the event. A committee hearing scheduled for July 18 will feature testimony from Atkinson and Prager, as well as Dr. Owen Anderson and radio host Seth Leibsohn.

Tom Lewis himself said that the backlash from faculty protesting the conservative speakers was the reason he felt compelled to terminate funding to the center, which was part of Barrett, The Honors College.

“Because these were mostly conservative speakers, we expected some opposition, but I was shocked and disappointed by the alarming and outright hostility demonstrated by the Barrett faculty and administration toward these speakers,” Tom Lewis himself said in a statement.

“Instead of sponsoring this event with a spirit of cooperation and respect for free speech, Barrett faculty and staff exposed the radical ideology that now apparently dominates the college. After seeing this level of left-wing hostility and activism, I no longer had any confidence in Barrett to adhere to the terms of our gift, and made the decision to terminate our agreement, effective June 30, 2023.”

State Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, and state Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, are co-chairing the committee, and Nguyen tweeted Thursday that he’s “very concerned” about the situation.

“[Arizona’s] public universities must be unfettered bastions of free speech & expression,” he said. “I’m very concerned to see admins terminated after coordinating to have conservatives speak on campus. I look [forward] to hearing from [university] leadership as to why this happened.”

The school currently holds a “green light” rating from the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression, which measures free expression rights at universities, and the group called Atkinson’s story “troubling” before learning that the donor pulled the funding himself.

“FIRE sees no #1A problem with such a closure, provided there are genuine funding concerns. But, because schools often point to viewpoint-neutral reasons to justify viewpoint-based censorship, we’ll continue to monitor closely,” the organization tweeted on June 21.

Originally published July 14, 2023, by The Center Square. 

MORE: Major benefactor pulls $400,000 annual donation from ASU, cites ‘left-wing hostility and activism’

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