Feeding the Tracker: From the Banal to the Bizarre, the Absurd to the Frightening

A view of the Free Speech Tracker as of August 2018.

By Grace Aldridge Foster

There’s no science to this. How could there be?

As editor and manager of the Free Speech Project for the past eight months, one of my primary responsibilities has been to feed the Free Speech Tracker — to search for incidents across the country in which Free Speech, in its various forms, has been challenged or violated. I’ve used a combination of daily Google alerts, Twitter scans, Poynter newsletters, and word of mouth recommendations to find these examples. I compile lists of them and forward them to the project’s director and principal research assistant to weigh in. The ones we all agree are Tracker-worthy I forward to our student researchers, usually once a week. They dig and verify and confirm, then draft memos that I edit before sending them to the director for a (sometimes) final review. He often comes back with additional questions to be answered.

The result, we hope, is nothing more or less than calm, clear, and reliable documentation of the state of Free Speech in the United States today.

We’ve tried to be as consistent and thoughtful as possible when it comes to choosing conflicts and deciding how to represent them. No one person ever makes unilateral editorial decisions. And we aim to offer up as wide an array of incidents as possible.

But there’s no perfect science to finding and choosing these events, largely because there’s no perfect science to the events themselves. Certain types of incidents are common and frequent: adjunct faculty members fired by universities for expressing unpopular or unwelcome opinions, for example, or state legislatures banning Free Speech zones on public campuses, and polarizing figures disinvited from speaking engagements.

Just as often, the exception — the unprecedented incident — is in fact the rule. Each new incident I encounter is stranger, or at least more complicated, than the last, and bizarre ones have become so common that they no longer seem bizarre.

My response to these incidents has grown to something resembling amusement, though of course there’s rarely anything really amusing about them. The white supremacist finding cover as a middle school teacher in Florida, the Green Bay Packers fan suing the Chicago Bears over his right to wear Packers apparel, and the American YouTube star posing with a suicide victim in Japan all start to blur together. The events are each so shocking in their own way — either because of their insidiousness or their pettiness or their utter inappropriateness — that they cease to shock.

Every once in a while, though, I stumble across something that truly surprises me.

For example, there’s the protest at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that began as a rather minor incident, and then ballooned into something truly expansive and wild. In August 2017, a 46-year-old graduate student in the English department confronted a 19-year-old undergraduate student who was standing behind a table advertising the right-wing organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA). The graduate student, who was also an instructor in the English department, made a poster that said “Just say NO! to neo-Fascism,” and yelled at the TPUSA representative, using obscene gestures and calling her a “neo-fascist Becky.” It was an ugly altercation, but not — at the time — a particularly important one in the scheme of things.

“The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes and had made barely a ripple on campus. But thanks to a cellphone video, a web-savvy political organization, and a group of suggestible lawmakers, it soon sent shock waves across Nebraska,” wrote journalist Steve Kolowich in an in-depth analysis of the incident for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in collaboration with the radio program “This American Life.”

Eventually, the graduate student was fired from her position as an adjunct instructor. Nebraska State Sen. Steve Halloran introduced the “Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act,” which would protect “spontaneous expressive activity” on college campuses and “impose sanctions on protesters who disrupt speakers on campus,” according to the Free Speech Project’s research. The undergraduate student, Kaitlyn Mullen, became a symbol and a rallying point for conservative students, politicians, and organizations who believe their speech is being shut down.

“What started as a brief verbal clash between two women on a campus plaza,” wrote Kolowich, “ended with a drawn-out standoff between powerful institutions over what a state, and its people, should stand for. It was less about free speech than how to use free speech to get what you want.”

And that, perhaps, is the lesson.

Free Speech isn’t about one political party or faction prevailing over another, as some pundits like to claim. It doesn’t really have anything to do with who has majority support and who doesn’t.

It does have a lot to do, it seems, with people trying to get what they want — at whatever cost — wherever they stand on the political spectrum.

We’ve seen, from the 135 incidents we’ve documented so far — surely only a fraction of the clashes that have actually occurred — that challenges to Free Speech don’t come from just one political party or another, and they aren’t isolated to the NFL or the liberal Hollywood elite or college students at prestigious universities. They are everywhere, and they come from every possible direction.

Perhaps more consistent, and concerning, is the trend of individuals, educational institutions, and state legislatures that seem comfortable capitalizing on the compromised state of Free Speech in order to win political — and social and cultural — battles that perhaps have very little to do with Free Speech itself.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

The Free Speech landscape in this country is such that Roseanne Barr “ambien tweeting” and insulting people on social media seems a graver issue in the court of public opinion than high school kids being punished for demonstrating during the national anthem. Sorting through the glorified name-calling and the he said/she said back-and-forth between pundits from across the political spectrum is absurd as often as it is deeply concerning. Separating the wheat from the chaff and discerning what is really at stake in the Free Speech drama raging around us is an overwhelming, yet worthy, task.

As I move on to other pursuits, I leave the Free Speech Project with much more than a new line on my resume; I leave with an understanding of the nuances of this fundamental democratic value, and an ability to think critically about the information being presented in the media. I also leave with a deepened conviction that humor is just as crucial an attitude to carry with me in this endeavor as is gravity.

Grace Aldridge Foster has worked as the project manager and editor of the Free Speech Project since November 2017. She earned her English M.A. from Georgetown University in May of that year. She is the co-founder of Bold Type, LLC, a writing consulting firm in Washington, D.C.