Issues in Philosophy Freedom to Speak or Freedom from Censure? Critiquing the Professor Watch List

Freedom to Speak or Freedom from Censure? Critiquing the Professor Watch List

By Nathan Eckstrand

A common misconception about the First Amendment is that if you are criticized for your beliefs, then your first amendment rights are being violated. It is this misconception that underlies the new Professor Watchlist, sponsored by conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA.

The site is ostensibly set up to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda,” whether that consists in pointing out that the gun lobby is largely white to equating the suffering of animals with that of humans. In reality, it operates as a serious threat to academic freedom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I am acquainted with several people on the list. Yet rather than disqualifying me from commenting, that fact offers me insight into the dangerous absurdity of this project. I have had many discussions with Robert Jensen and George Yancy and have read several of their books. Anyone who has spent more than a moment with them or who has read more than the introductory paragraphs of their works should easily recognize that their philosophies do not fit the simplistic box that the Professor Watch List wishes to put them into.

Take this example. The Professor Watch List contends it a form of indoctrination for Yancy to call on whites in America to “examine the racist poison inside of you.” That quote comes from the article “Dear White America,” whose overriding message is that we should love one another, and that this love requires we take time to understand different perspectives and how our actions affect others. One would think this message would be supported by Professor Watchlist, given that its sponsor argues in one of its publications that “By hearing the opinions of those that do not agree with us, we learn to question our own beliefs and expand our views on the world around us. This is an important part of maturing as both a citizen and as a private individual, as we navigate the difficult task of deciding what we believe is right and wrong.” The idea that whites should be challenged about their privilege and that becoming caring individuals requires us to consider the impact of our actions is in perfect harmony with Turning Point USA’s stated message as voiced in that particular report.

A fundamental misunderstanding motivating the Professor Watchlist is that students are forced to believe what teachers say. In fact, good educators teach many ideas that they do not personally adhere to. They ask that students understand many concepts and beliefs and that they develop their own ideas and philosophies. This is the point highlighted by Jensen, Yancy, and others. Anthea Butler, a Religious Studies professor at University of Pennsylvania who is on the list, writes in her op-ed for The Guardian that “The irony of all of this is that while I am on the Professor Watchlist, I am probably one of the few professors in America who encourages the students who take my Religious Right in America course to attend conferences like CPAC and Values Voters Summit. No one censors my class when I ask students to watch clips of Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly or William F. Buckley.”

It may be tempting to dismiss the Professor Watchlist as another iteration in a long line of harassments that intellectuals throughout history have faced. After all, Nixon’s list of political opponents included numerous intellectuals who had celebrated careers. Although the educators on the Professor Watchlist may not be in danger of losing their jobs (though we should be concerned about other forms of harassment they could face), there is still the concern that it will still voices that need to be heard. As the Professor Watchlist Redux (a satirical site devoted to honoring those who advocated for open inquiry) notes, intellectuals have been an important part of building a world that embodies “values that Americans and others throughout the world have held.” Indeed, some of the ideals that Professor Watch List admires so much only exist because intellectuals like Socrates, Gallileo, Dewey and others raised objections to their society’s accepted beliefs. To call out professors for voicing their opinions publicly—without evidence that they are in any way stifling the ability of others to speak—is a perilous undertaking.

While a blog devoted to concerns of the philosophical community likely will not have many readers who disagree with the above sentiments, the question of how to respond is still open. Professor Watchlist Redux uses parody. Jensen’s article educates readers about his pedagogy, and how it is different from what the Professor Watch List says. Yancy describes his anger at the site as an “enabling” feeling that encourages him to keep speaking out. And Butler talks about the importance of an environment of trust on campuses.

In addition to these valuable suggestions, I want to make one more. As I mentioned in my “What Are You Reading?” column right before the election, the rhetoric of democracy is being used more and more for partisan ends, rather than being used to enhance democracy. The Professor Watchlist is a good example of this because it mobilizes the language of free speech to promote a conservative agenda. We need to invest ourselves in conversation about what free speech means. It does not mean that you are free from having to listen to others. It does not mean that you are immune from criticism. And it does not mean that people who say something different are endangering your rights.

I am reminded of a passage from Howard Zinn’s book Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. He says “If it were left to the institutions of government, the Bill of Rights would be left for dead. But someone breathed life into the Bill of Rights. Ordinary people did it, by doing extraordinary things.”

The Professor Watch List is dangerous because it stifles open discussion of ideas, because it does not honestly present the opinions of its target professors, and because it does not distinguish educators’ personal opinions from what they teach. If left to the Professor Watch List, academic freedom would be a thing of the past. It is up to the ordinary people of academia and other ordinary people who care about academic freedom to make sure that doesn’t happen.


Nathan Eckstrand is one of the Associate Editors of the Blog of the APA.


What do you think about the Watchlist?  Weigh in on the discussion in the comments below, or if you’d be interested in writing a blog post in response, contact us on the submission form here.


  1. I am a white heterosexual male who experienced what I believe was some of the worst discrimination imaginable in professional employment and in my deeply painful career as a student in the American public school system. But when I attempted to talk about that discrimination by sending a letter to my professional colleagues, I was accused of psychiatric instability and removed from my employment. When I tried to get a lawyer to handle my case, none would take it (it didn’t fall under equal opportunity in employment categories); at the college level, my case was handled by a committee composed of the professors who I questioned about the discrimination; and my case was dismissed in federal court by summary judgment for the defendants. When I tried to pursue the case in federal courts, I found myself facing prosecution for using law libraries to prepare briefs; and I ended up for some time on the streets, unemployed, and finally unable to re-enter the profession. Only after many difficult years of hardship have I been able to find an outlet for my work; and I still believe I encounter discrimination whenever I attempt to publish, not to mention seeking employment (an impossibility without professional connections) or attending professional conferences. And I still suffer from the post traumatic effects of that discrimination on an everyday basis.

    If the profession is serious about facing up to discrimination in scholarly fields, I’d suggest that the profession must look beyond the stereotyped categories of race, class, gender etc. and admit that discrimination, prejudice, bias, and hatred come from all directions and affect all persons, not just those who fit your stereotyped categories. This is not to deny the clear historical legacies of racial and sexual discrimination that persist in the contemporary world, only to say that denying that white heterosexual males who are proud to be white heterosexual males can experiences discrimination just like everybody else is a falsehood and only contributes to further discrimination. What we are experiencing in the contemporary world is a backlash against the privileged predominantly white college-educated leftist-liberal bias that sees the whole world in stereotyped race/class/gender categories and imposes those categories on everyone and everything, and denies the right to speak to anyone who does not fit those categories. I’d suggest that professional academia needs to move beyond those categories and acknowledge the multifaceted aspects of discrimination (reverse discrimination, double reverse discrimination etc.) in the contemporary world, and look at how discrimination prejudice hatred and bias are built into the American public education system at a deep level, not identical with race/class/gender discrimination, and are simply perpetuated by seeing everything in race/class/gender terms. Moving beyond those terms to talk about discrimination against people who are psychologically disadvantaged, developmentally disabled, or socially other-ed might help, but that’s only a first step.

    When the professional world is really ready to talk about how discrimination prejudice bias and hatred really work, and how they affect people at deeply traumatic, subconscious levels, I’d be glad to talk about that, too. But I don’t see it happening, and don’t expect anymore to see it happen in my lifetime.

  2. Eric,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my article. I am interested in your comment about being discriminated against, and would like to hear more. Since you mentioned post traumatic stress I don’t want you to feel obligated to do this, but would you mind sharing some of the details of your experiences?

    Also, please accept my sympathies for what you went through earlier in life.


  3. Nathan,

    Thanks for your interest. I can’t say I’m glad to share, since it’s often not pleasant to talk about these things, and I’d always rather think about something else! And there are so many more important things than my petty sufferings, like the Syrian catastrophe, continuing as we speak. Or aftermath of the US presidential election, which we will enjoy for the next four years. But when I saw your article, I felt I should say something, more for the remote possibility that the American professional academic system might actually change (ha!), and somebody else might be spared what I went through, than for my own gratification. Why don’t you send an email to me at my email address, and I could say more unpleasant things about my wonderful experiences with the American public education system.

    Eric D. Meyer

  4. Dear Nathan Eckstrand,

    I haven’t seen an email from you, but I’ll make a brief response, just to get it off my head. But instead of talking about me, I’ll talk about a job I had after losing mine.

    I worked as a van driver at a center for developmentally disabled people. In case you haven’t had the experience, developmentally disabled people are those with Downs syndrome, fragile-x syndrome, Tourettes, and so on, and they range from mildly to severely autistic. Which means that these people sometimes have almost no self-consciousness about their actions and very little ego-personality. And that also means that it is very easy for other people to put words in their mouths and thoughts in their heads and make them say and do things they have no self-conscious intent of saying or doing.

    What I saw happening at this center for the developmentally disabled was that the counselors and group home workers responsible for these people would play games with them, making them say and do things that cast them as dangerous people or as social deviants, as criminals or villains and so on; and the group home workers and counselors would put on skits or charades in which these people could be blamed for something or hated for something they didn’t really want to do: breaking things, whistling at women, attacking others etc..

    One of the major themes of these skits or charades had to do with sexual abuse or sexual assaults. Even though developmentally disabled males who are heavily drugged have very little or no sex drive, the group home workers would pretend they were chasing after other developmentally disabled people or group home workers (mostly female), and then chastise them or punish them for it. They would also pretend these individuals were deranged and violent, and likely to hurt other people, even though these people were sometimes almost completely withdrawn and passive, when not being put into these situations.

    Watching this happening, I had to realize that what I saw there happens to certain people (too many people) in the American public schools system, who are set up as scapegoats or made examples of, and cast as dangerous criminals or sexual attackers, when they also have very little self-consciousness about what’s happening to them, and they may end up in prison, in juvenile detention, on drugs, suicidal, or in psychiatric facilities.
    And watching this happen, I also had to realize that I was one of those persons, since I was borderline autistic until I was 37 years old; and I realized: that’s what the American public schools system did to me.

    I don’t guess you will agree with what I say, or have a response. But if you’re interested, I can elaborate. And I just say all this because I wonder how many people go through what I went through, without even knowing it. And I often wish I could stop other people from having to go through the suffering I want through. But I know many other people will have to go through it, until this system changes…

    Eric D. Meyer

  5. Dear Eric,

    Sorry for taking a while to respond. It was not because I was uninterested in discussing the issue with you, but because I had a lot of end of semester work to take care of. And while I value the dialogue you and I are having, I felt that work needed to be finished first.

    Anyway, I read with interest all of your responses, and I do agree with the danger you point to; namely, the harmful way in which people are unjustly made to play roles that marginalize them or cast them as deviants. I would actually say this it is this very danger that my article was pointing to.

    If I understand your point correctly, you are worried that society (and my post above) focuses too much on familiar categories of oppression (race, gender, etc.) and not enough on others (white males, for instance). Because of this, we as a society ignore how white men, for instance, are at times targeted for being white men, and are made to play the villain because historically they have been the beneficiaries of previous systems of oppression. Let me know if I’m misunderstanding your position.

    My response to this is not as far from your position as you might think. I do believe that white men can suffer oppression, and that harmful stereotypes can be used against people of all types (including white men).

    Where I would want to push back against your position is that we should not forego studying racial oppression, gender oppression, class oppression, etc. and instead just focus on oppression per se. The fact that white men are subject to stereotypes and social pressures, and are thus not free actors, does not undermine the insight that black men are treated differently than whites, or that women are targets of violence by men at a much higher rate than men are targeted by women. And while I have definitely heard of cases where people rushed to judgment in condemning a white man for a sexual assault (for example), this does not imply that using the category of gender to study and understand such events is a bad idea. The social forces that produce men are different than those that produce women, just as those that produce whites are different than those that produce blacks, and those that produce able-bodied people are different than those that produce developmentally disabled individuals.

    It is these social forces that need to be confronted, and it is these social forces that the individuals I cite in my article are focused on. But there is no way to confront these forces without at the same time confronting the social position and identity of white men. The actions and language men take towards women that are dangerous need to be confronted, just as the opposite is true. Same with issues of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, etc. And as the statistics will show, white upper class men are still by far receiving more of the benefits of society–and are treated much better by people in authority–than minorities, women, or the poor.

    Again, none of this is to say that white men cannot be unjustly targeted. They certainly can, and have, been. But it is to say that we should not forego studying these “traditional” categories of oppression. So while I think we must be careful to ensure gender based, race based, and class based critiques are not misused, we cannot examine oppression without them (at least at the moment).

    I hope this clarifies for you my position in relationship to yours. I agree with you that these categories are not the only ones that can be used to oppress, but they are still big ones in our society. Hopefully, at some point, that will change. Until then, though, the fact that critiques of them are used to harm white rich men should not lead us to ignore them. It just means the critiques must be done responsibly.


  6. Dear Nathan,

    Yes, you’re correct that my complaint is that stereotyped categories of race/class/gender obscure the real causes and effects of discrimination and oppression. I think the difference between us here is not about categories of discrimination and oppression, because I’d agree that, historically, white male heterosexuals have been privileged and dominant and have used that privileged position to keep down women and people of color etc.. What I’m more concerned with is the methods of keeping people down, which are often employed both by people (white male heterosexuals, if you wish) in privileged dominant positions, and by people in underclass positions (women, people of color, etc.), and which then create a self-perpetuating master/slave dialectic that may be especially difficult and painful to deal with if you are caught, as I’d say I was, in the crossfire and have to take the stereotyping, discrimination, and hatred from both sides. My point was that the dominant system actually creates and exploits this self-perpetuating system of discrimination, oppression, and hatred, which effectively drives the American disciplinary system (schools prisons military etc.) by making people fight against each other and compete for privileged positions, and that the system recruits people from all categories as scapegoats and whipping-boys, to direct the hatred of both sides against, thereby perpetuating (while pretending to fight against) discrimination in its more superficial race/class/gender versions.

    But what concerns me especially is that the dominant system effectively disguises the methods by which they make this scapegoat system work, by placing people in situations where they will appear as criminals, villains, bigots, racists, or sexists, when they are, in fact, not, and by putting words in their mouths and staging charades in which they are made to play a stereotyped role against their will and choice that casts them in the criminal or villain position. This is also the method used, for example, by the American criminal justice system to coerce or extort confessions from innocent people, simply to have somebody to blame the crime on (e.g., in Idaho Falls, Christopher Tapp, convicted of the murder of Angie Dodge, now widely believed innocent, but still in prison), or by FBI or CIA agents to recruit often naive juvenile males (especially Muslims, Somalis, etc.) to entrap and frame them for terrorists acts they had no prior intention of committing (e.g., Muhammed Mohammed, the Portland “Christmas Tree Bomber”).

    I would even say that, for example, feminist critiques of the rape ethic of the patriarchal system, while certainly valid in themselves, are made facile because they do not describe how stalkers and rapists actually force their victims to superficially consent to stalking or rape, and even make the victims look like the perpetrators, through these same methods of putting words in peoples’ mouths and making them perform actions (sexual acts) that they really had no choice or intention of committing. Further, I’d even say that the current American disciplinary system actually teaches people to use these coercive methods on other people: precisely the people, of course, who are singled out as scapegoats and whipping-boys and made examples of by the disciplinary system as I was…

    I’d also say that Western philosophy has been aware of these methods since the beginning, but, for whatever reasons, has chosen not to speak out about them or has actually taken the side of the perpetrator. Plato’s Apology trilogy, for example, very clearly demonstrates how Socrates was framed for sophistic thought-crimes that he didn’t really commit, and was made to convict himself before the Athenian jury, and finally sentenced to death—and then even made to consent to his death-sentence by committing suicide, thereby vindicating, in Plato’s view, the Athenian Laws!. As one of the Sophists in the Menexenus (Dionysodorus, I think?) says: “Out of your own mouth you are convicted, Socrates.” Whether Plato and Xenophon were complicitous in this frame-up, I leave to the jury to decide.

    But I really think there will not be further progress made in reforming the criminal justice system (and the public school system) or correcting historical oppression, until the methods behind this disciplinary system are made public and discussed openly and freely.

    Thanks for your response. And take care.

    Eric D. Meyer


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