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Arizona State University sees scrutiny over conservative event backlash

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(The Center Square) – An Arizona lawmaker wants the state’s collegiate governing body to investigate why an Arizona State University employee lost her job shortly after organizing an event featuring conservative speaker.

Rep. Austin Smith, R-Surprise, wrote to the Arizona Board of Regents on June 21 following the decision by ASU to terminate the employment of administrator Ann Atkinson.

Atkinson worked as the executive director of the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at ASU’s Barrett Honors College, where she hosted an event in Feb. 2023 titled “Health, Wealth and Happiness,” with conservative speakers Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk. By June 30, she will be terminated from ASU.

“ASU claims to value freedom of expression,” Atkinson said in a Wall St. Journal op-ed. “But in the end, the faculty mob always wins against institutional protections for free speech.”

Atkinson argued that the move was politically motivated, but ASU argued differently, saying it was due to the Lewis Center’s loss of funding.

“Arizona State University is committed to, in practice, not just rhetoric, all things that support free speech and all of its components,” the university’s news release reads. “ASU employee Ann Atkinson has lost the distinction between feelings and fact in her recent comments about what prompted her loss of employment at the T.W. Lewis Center at Arizona State University.”

The T.W. Lewis Foundation, led by prominent home developer Tom Lewis, did cancel its funding of the development center. However, Lewis’ revokement of funds may be a response to Atkinson’s treatment, and not the cause. Lewis is known for funding conservative groups, including Prager University and Turning Point USA. He even issued a statement to the Arizona Republic in response to Atkinson’s job loss.

“The long story short is that conservative viewpoints are not welcome at ASU, or at most public universities in America,” Lewis said.

Atkinson detailed ways she believes the administration sought to censor the event without outright banning it. Nevertheless, the event was successful, with a total turnout of 1,500 attending in person, and 24,000 online.

“The university administration’s position on the event was no secret,” Atkinson said. “All advertising about ‘Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ was scrubbed from campus walls and digital flyers. Behind closed doors, deans pressured me to postpone the event indefinitely.”

The clearest form of opposition was a letter signed by 36 honors college faculty members. Though the letter condemned the event, it did not explicitly call for its cancelation.

“Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk are purveyors of hate who have publicly attacked women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, as well as the institutions of our democracy, including our public institutions of higher education,” the letter read. “By platforming and legitimating their extreme anti-intellectual and antidemocratic views, Barrett will not be furthering the cause of democratic exchange at ASU, but undermining it in ways that could further marginalize the most vulnerable members of our community.”

The letter cited examples of Prager and Kirk’s positions in which they disagreed.

According to some, Atkinson is not the only to suffer repercussions for expressing conservative beliefs at ASU. In the letter to the Arizona Board of Regents, Smith cites the previous arrest of student Tim Tizon for handing out pocket constitutions, as well as the firing of ASU Gammage Theater employee Kin Blake for hosting Atkinson’s event that “did not align with Gammage’s values.”

“Free speech is paramount to the future of our Republic,” Smith said, “Higher education taxpayer-funded universities must be held to a higher standard regarding the First Amendment. I am disturbed that this trend continues to happen at Arizona State University. I have asked the Regents to do their job and seek answers immediately from Arizona State administrators.”

In addition to Smith’s investigation, ASU is currently being watched by the campus free speech group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

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

FIRE had previously given ASU their “green” rating regarding the freedom of expression and speech on campus.

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