Professors Are Targets In Online Culture Wars; Some Fight Back : NPR Ed Across the country, in the past year and a half, at least 250 university professors have been targeted in cyber harassment campaigns because of their research, teaching or social media posts.
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Professors Are Targets In Online Culture Wars; Some Fight Back

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Professors Are Targets In Online Culture Wars; Some Fight Back

Professors Are Targets In Online Culture Wars; Some Fight Back

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, this week NPR is examining free speech in a digital age. Today we look at college campuses. In the past two years, more than 250 university professors around the country have been the targets of cyber harassment campaigns. Some have lost their jobs. Others fear for their family's safety. Anya Kamenetz reports on how professors are pushing back against the cyber mobs.

ALBERT PONCE: I see my light flashing there. That's all the calls I've been getting.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: You have 20 unheard messages.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Professor Albert Ponce teaches political science at Diablo Valley, a community college in California's East Bay. For the past few months, his answering machine has been filling up with threatening messages like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Albert Ponce, you are a piece of [expletive] gutter slug that needs his neck snapped, OK? Call me if you need me. I'll do it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: [Expletive] Race-baiting [expletive] piece of trash.

KAMENETZ: It all started last October. Ponce was invited to give a public lecture on campus about his academic specialty, race and racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PONCE: So we begin with the fact that we exist in a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist system.

KAMENETZ: That's from an edited video of the talk, one that was circulated in various right-wing forums online. In the speech, Ponce said there was a white supremacist in the White House and that Thomas Jefferson raped many of his slaves. In today's highly polarized political climate, academics get attacked routinely when they bring up race or diversity. There are examples across the country. After he tweeted, all I want for Christmas is white genocide, George Ciccariello-Maher was placed on leave from Drexel University in Pennsylvania. At Brooklyn College, Laurie Rubel published a National Science Foundation-funded research paper about how math teachers in segregated urban schools can address equity. The on-air take of Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld was...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIVE")

GREG GUTFELD: A math professor at Brooklyn College claims that merit-based education, meaning rewards linked to hard work and talent, is a tool of evil whiteness.

KAMENETZ: The right doesn't have a monopoly on these attacks. Colleges like UC Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement, have erupted with violent responses to conservative speakers. And professors have sometimes been subject to equally intense harassment from the left as well as the right. Bruce Gilley at Portland State University published a paper in an academic journal last fall titled "The Case For Colonialism."

BRUCE GILLEY: There is a wealth of evidence in particular that's come out in the last 10 years that shows quite overwhelmingly positive benefits in terms of democracy, in terms of public health, in terms of human rights.

KAMENETZ: The paper incited liberal outrage.

GILLEY: I had never experienced that kind of mass global mob. I took fright, frankly.

KAMENETZ: The article was withdrawn after threats of violence against Gilley and the editor of the journal that published it, Third World Quarterly. There is a difference in patterns of online harassment between the right and the left. On the left, threats tend to originate from within campus communities. Thousands of self-identified academics, for example, signed online petitions calling for Gilley's article to be retracted. On the right, there's an entire network of groups like Professor Watchlist or self-described alt-right media collective The Red Elephants. They posted a video in December about Albert Ponce attacking what they called...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Marxist, communist, disgusting rhetoric that they spew in these classrooms to indoctrinate these children.

KAMENETZ: They used it to kick off an initiative called Film Your Marxist Professors. Meanwhile, websites Campus Reform and The College Fix pay students to report from classrooms. These tales spread to alt-right media sites like Stormfront and Breitbart and to mainstream outlets like Fox News, the New York Post, even CNN, while self-identified trolls uncover and post people's personal information and concoct false accusations. But some of the academics are fighting back. Albert Ponce's faculty senate is drafting a resolution that he hopes will be adopted by the District Board of Governors to make clear that the colleges will stand behind scholars with provocative beliefs.

PONCE: We can't just say anything because we are professors producing academic research. We're able to make claims - maybe provocative, very provocative to many - but we ground it, and we back it up with evidence.

KAMENETZ: He is resolute. But the harassment is taking a toll on him and his family.

PONCE: But the thing that's most troubling is, you know, the real threats against my family. And that's when, you know, the doxxing of, you know, pictures on the web and of my 9-year-old daughter.

KAMENETZ: They are afraid for their lives.

PONCE: All it takes is one.

KAMENETZ: He and his wife try not to park their cars in the same places every day, and they scan the street from the window at night.

What have you told your daughter, anything?

PONCE: No, not yet. I'm trying to shield her as much as possible.

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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