Cheryl Abbate, who was a philosophy graduate student at Marquette University, became another casualty in the intimidation campaign of the right-wing trying to shut down critical thought one class-room at a time. Below is a slightly edited interview with Abbate. We think it’s important that the academic community thoroughly document the intimidation campaigns besetting workers in higher education, so that we can see clearly the tactics and goals of those trying to shut down higher education as a forum for the cultivation of critical thought and diversity of perspective and person. This is the NCA’s effort to contribute to our collective archive, to show how academic freedom and free speech are being weaponized by the right, as a start to developing a counter-strategy to thwart these right-wing assaults.
It all started in October 2014, when a student in Abbate’s Ethical Theory class complained to Abbate after class that he was not allowed to express his objection to gay marriage when a ban on gay marriage was cited by other students as an example of a policy that would violate John Rawls’s Equal Liberty Principle. Abbate challenged the research about adoption by same-sex couples that the student cited in his discussion with her after class, told him the topic had not been under discussion, and that certain objections to gay marriage would be offensive to homosexual students in the class. She invited more scholarly engagement on the discussion from this student and from his classmates in a subsequent class discussion.
The student recorded the conversation they had without her permission, and brought the incident to John McAdams, a professor at Marquette who has a conservative blog. McAdams then attacked Abbate in a blogpost, and misrepresented what happened, characterizing it as a teacher shutting down speech, an odious example of “the politically correct world of academia.” Among McAdams’ fabrications: “She listed some issues on the board, and came to ‘gay rights.’ She then airily said that ‘everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.'” McAdams’ false account was spread further by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), other publications. and, crucially, Fox News. (For a somewhat more detailed account, see here.)
Abbate then became the target of an extensive, concerted, and violently misogynistic harassment campaign [discussed further below]. As a result, McAdams’ actions were investigated by a seven-member panel of faculty, who unanimously decided that his conduct in naming Abbate publicly was unprofessional, and the university suspended him. He sued, claiming his rights to freedom of expression were violated by the University. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher ruled in May 2016 that Marquette, which is a private institution, had the legal right to suspend McAdams without pay. McAdams appealed, and the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered Marquette to reinstate McAdams, who had been suspended for 7 semesters without pay, and sent the case back to a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge to award damages. It ruled that his suspension breached McAdams’ contract and academic freedom.
Can you describe in some detail what happened to you after John McAdams discussed you in his blog-post?
After Fox News picked up John McAdams’s blog post, my inbox was immediately flooded with harassing and, in some cases, violent messages. Some individuals sent abusive letters to my Marquette University mailbox, such as one individual who encouraged me to “abort” myself. A significant number of those who emailed me used misogynist language, such as by referring to me as, among other things, a “cunt,” “bitch,” “pussy,” “dyke,” “stupid, stupid woman,” having “wet panties,” “emotionally driven,” and so forth. Other men referred to me as: “intolerant,” “tyrant,” “first-class collectivist,” “faux educator in an artificial bubble,” “intolerant chauvinist,” “so-called instructor,” “insecure lefty,” “fag enabler,” “bigoted,” “EVIL,” “dope,” “ignorant, liberal frump,” “immature,” “asshole,” “anti-intellectual bigot,” “liberal freak,” an “unamerican fascist,” “a fascist who has no brain,” and “a seditious cultural Marxist.”.
In addition to the abusive emails and letters I received, I was subject to misogynist attacks on public websites. In response to the articles written about me, men began to leave comments about how I should be raped or killed. Some even went to Marquette University’s Facebook page to express their desire that my “brains be blown out.” One person created a public meme stating that I should “puke and die.” The most concerning and violent commentaries about me can be found in the comment sections of the websites IOTW Report and Auto Admit. The comments consist of attacks on my personal appearance, claims that I should be raped (“Do bitchesNamed Cheryl Abbate need a goodRAPING?”), claims that I “suck cock,” claims that I “need dick,” references to men masturbating to a photo of me, statements about how men “Can’t wait to assfuck her [Cheryl Abbate] just like lying bitch,” and claims that I need to be “owned” or “made wet” in my classroom by a man.
In addition, my “Rate My Professor” page was continually trolled by people who did not take my class. Some people left ratings calling me intolerant; others said that I call my students names and “go after them if they do not celebrate a sexual disorder called lesbianism.”
This all has affected me significantly, as for a while, I felt the need to continually search the internet to see what was being said about me and check to see if my personal information, such as my home address, was being distributed. Imagine being a graduate student who is new to teaching and finding pages and pages of websites that ridicule you and characterize you as an awful teacher or a tyrant. Or worse yet, imagine googling yourself and seeing someone publicly say that you “need a good raping.”
To this day, every time I open my e-mail, I am anxious. Every time I teach a class, I am worried that a student is recording me and that something I say may be again misconstrued as an attempt to push a “liberal agenda.” And every time I see these articles or fake teaching reviews regarding my teaching performance and potential, which are somewhat hard to avoid, I am reminded of how uncertain I am about my future in academia.
For the past two years, I’ve decided to pour myself into my work, completely ignore the internet articles and criticisms of my teaching, and dissociate myself from the recent legal free-speech battle at Marquette. This, I think, was the best thing I could do for myself.
What were your motivations in telling the student that anti-gay or racist comments were inappropriate?
In answering this question, I first want to clarify the context in which this was said and how it related to the day’s lecture and discussion. A number of online articles mistakenly claim that I “did not allow a discussion of gay marriage” or that I “shut down” a discussion of gay marriage in my class. The issue of gay marriage came up briefly in my class when I asked my students for examples of contemporary social policies that would violate a specific philosophical principle (John Rawls’s equal liberty principle). At no point in the class did I encourage my students to present their own views on these policies. Rather, the assignment was simple and straightforward: list examples of policies that do and do not violate Rawls’s principle. While we did spend some time considering how certain policies (such as gun laws) would be accounted for by Rawls’s theory, there were a number of social policies that we did not spend time discussing (such as a ban on marijuana or seat belt laws) simply because there is a more obvious, straightforward application of Rawls’s theory of justice to these particular policies. When one student rightly suggested that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’s equal liberty principle, I wrote this on the board, noted that this was the correct way to apply Rawls’s principle to a ban on gay marriage, and then moved on to more nuanced examples. None of my students objected to this during class. It wasn’t until after the class that I realized one student was concerned that I did not spend more time on this issue.
This student approached me privately after class to complain that I did not open up a discussion about gay marriage when discussing Rawls’s equal liberty principle. He claimed that he had wanted to provide an argument against gay marriage—an argument that draws on research that allegedly shows, to quote the complaining student, children of gay parents “do a lot worse in life.” Presumably, the student was referring to Mark Regnerus’s “New Family Structures Study,” which is seriously methodologically flawed and has been thoroughly discredited by, for instance, the American Sociological Association. When I attempted to explain to the student why his objection was misguided given the philosophical principle under discussion and the empirical problems with the research he had in mind, the student responded by cutting me off with the following statement: “Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.” Yet at least some “arguments” against gay marriage do not belong in any class discussion. For example, to argue that “gay people are unequal and thus shouldn’t have the right to marry” clearly is inappropriate and does not belong in a classroom discussion, just like it is not acceptable for students to argue that “slavery is permissible because white people are more valuable than people of color.” Because there are a number of arguments against gay marriage that violate Marquette’s policy on student conduct, I felt it necessary to remind the student, who seemed to think he was entitled to make any argument against gay marriage, that some comments do not belong in a Marquette University classroom and may be viewed as homophobic.
What kind of support, if any, did you receive from Marquette administration or colleagues when you became the target of harassment?
The department chair at Marquette University was incredibly supportive of me. She checked on me numerous times throughout this event and offered, on a number of occasions, to meet with me just to provide moral support, as she saw first-hand the emotional toll this took on me. I cannot imagine having a more kind, caring, and supportive department chair, and I am so thankful that she was leading our department at the time this happened.
After transferring to a new university, I received an incredible amount of support from the faculty and graduate students. Upon my arrival, I was immediately treated like a part of the family and was welcomed warmly. I feel blessed to have found such a kind, warm, and supportive department-- I couldn’t ask for better colleagues and mentors, and I really don’t know if I would still be in academia if I hadn’t found a department as supportive and friendly as the one I’m in now.
It’s difficult to know what to do to support someone in a situation like mine, since there doesn’t seem as though there is much anyone can do to control what other people say online or through e-mail. But I do think that my new philosophy department has set a strong example for other departments that might one day be forced to deal with a similar issue.
Do you think the University was right to punish McAdams? Why?
It seems to me that a minimal requirement of faculty members should be that they not publicly humiliate and defame their university’s graduate students.
Have you found that it has become harder to balance promoting an open classroom in which ideas can be debated and maintaining an atmosphere in class that does not harm the ability of some students to learn and participate?
In my experience, it is unusual for students to express outright discriminatory comments in class. The students I’ve had in class are almost always thoughtful and considerate of others when they participate. But students may find it difficult to express themselves in class, especially about more sensitive issues, so I think it’s important for teachers to realize that students are often nervous when speaking in class, and, consequently, may say things that come across in ways that they did not intend. I try to provide charitable interpretations of student remarks, and, consequently, my students seem to readily offer contributions to class discussions.
Has there been a chilling effect on classroom conversation or other contexts of debate?
I’ve talked to other philosophy instructors who, because of what happened at Marquette, are nervous about including controversial topics in their syllabi. The Marquette event, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident, and these public attacks on instructors likely chill academic freedom in many classrooms—especially the classrooms of untenured instructors whose careers may be jeopardized or altogether ruined by a classroom discussion gone wrong. And this chilling effect is quite unusual in philosophy, as our discipline typically involves rigorous debate about sensitive topics.
In the future, how will you deal with students who wish to express views that are discriminatory or painful to others in the classroom?
I think that it’s important for instructors to, in some way, address with the entire class any potentially discriminatory or painful student remarks. Usually, in ethics class, discriminatory comments appeal to indefensible moral principles or flawed empirical data, and drawing attention to this is a way to teach students how to reason better. So following my after class discussion with the complaining Marquette student, I made it a point to address his criticism of gay marriage (that children of gay people “do a lot worse in life”) with the entire class. I first explained why Rawls’s equal liberty principle would not favor a ban on gay marriage. Then I explained the empirical flaws of Mark Regnerus’s “study” (which the student seemed to appeal to during our after-class discussion), and, as a class, we discussed what kinds of sources are suitable for academic papers and discussions. I tried my best to turn my discussion with the complaining student into a learning opportunity about good research methods for the entire class. But at the end of the day, in an ethics class, it’s impossible to avoid subjects that will stir students.
It seems to us that the events, legislation, and discourse that were spurred by your case highlight, or even crystallize, a lot of the core lines in the current campus battles over: academic freedom; free speech; the mission of higher education; intimidation campaigns against faculty; preserving higher education as a space that reflects the diversity of its students; tensions between the political right vs. left/ conservative vs. liberal/ racism and discrimination vs. tolerance and diversity; politicization of the courts.
We also see that the right wing in the United States is using “free speech” and the First Amendment as a cover for their political efforts to marginalize further already marginalized groups. They have managed to confuse the protections of the First Amendment, which provide for individual freedom of expression, and academic freedom, which protects higher education as a public good in which professors can do their jobs and accomplish their disciplinary and general higher education missions.
What are your reflections on this?
The situation at Marquette is a paradigm case of certain people misinterpreting and exaggerating what should have been a private discussion between a student and instructor, in order to hyperbolize the so-called problem of “liberal professors shutting down free speech in the classroom.” Many of the news articles about my case referred to me as a “liberal professor” who prohibits students from objecting to gay marriage during class, when in reality, I was a graduate student teacher in training (who actually is fairly conservative on a number of issues), who tried to have an after-class discussion with one student about appropriate classroom conduct.
I find convincing John Stuart Mill’s position on free speech – that even misguided speech should be heard, as bad arguments provide a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth.” In a philosophy class, it’s incredibly important to consider at least some bad arguments, so that we can see what bad reasoning looks like. But of course, this doesn’t mean that any argument should be entertained in class, such as those that violate the university’s policy on student conduct and those that are mere attempts to derail philosophical inquiry (for example: those that claim that some humans have “lesser worth than others” or that certain human beings are “gross”). We must not forget that enforcing our university’s student conduct code and promoting civil behavior in the classroom is part of an instructor’s job.
It’s a shame that the recent unjustified attacks on instructors like myself surely have resulted in some instructors altogether avoiding controversial topics in class. After all, it’s a reasonable worry that their efforts to guide appropriate classroom discussions, especially discussions about sensitive topics, may be misconstrued and publicly characterized as attempts to “silence students.” If people genuinely care about free speech in the classroom, then they ought to, at the very least, permit instructors to manage classroom discussions in ways that both uphold university policy on civil behavior in the classroom and promote fruitful conversation and inquiry. Publicly humiliating and attacking instructors for trying to do just this is antithetical to free speech.