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ASU Report to the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities

This 75-page report constitutes Arizona State University’s response to the request from the co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities to provide a review of events surrounding the former T.W. Lewis Center’s Feb. 8, 2023 event titled “Health, Wealth & Happiness” and the center’s former executive director, Ann Atkinson.

The university reviewed thousands of documents including emails, policies and websites and gathered information from university employees involved. ASU also engaged an outside law firm to assist in identifying relevant witnesses and documents and to conduct witness interviews, especially with those who might be unwilling to speak directly with the university. ASU reviewed tips submitted to the outside counsel and through a hotline it maintains to facilitate anonymous ethics reporting.

Arizona State University’s review of the circumstances surrounding the Feb. 8 Lewis Center event reveals the complexity of respecting and advancing freedom of speech and free expression in an academic family with more than 80,000 students and more than 15,000 faculty and staff members.

Like any community, the ASU academic community is filled with sharp differences of opinion on virtually every subject. And those differences of opinion are visible on our campuses on a daily basis: students establish student clubs, publish newspapers and newsletters, organize student government and invite speakers to campus while often protesting the visitors of others; visitors to campus advocate for one cause or another while sometimes criticizing, chastising and even screaming at passersby; faculty engage in the life of the institution through classroom and online teaching, engaging with people from all 50 states and more than 150 countries.

The “Health, Wealth & Happiness” event must be reviewed in context. The T.W. Lewis Center was unique for a university program. The center was primarily sponsored by Tom Lewis, who placed certain requirements on his donation, including specific classes, use of his own book, and having dedicated staff. Although the Lewis Center operated successfully for several years, some of those interviewed by ASU’s outside counsel for this report opined that: (1) the purpose of the center was not effectively communicated with other stakeholders, including faculty, (2) although the programming was open, services and events were not effectively integrated into the greater Barrett Honors College community, and (3) the center appeared to operate as a silo and, at times, was perceived to be in competition for resources and attention. These existing misalignments and disagreements contributed to the conflict and misunderstandings that surrounded the February 8 event.

The university’s review found the kind of passionate discussion and debate that the First Amendment celebrates, followed by a successful event where the invited speakers reached tens of thousands of audience members.

Answering the allegations brought by Ms. Atkinson, the university’s review did not find evidence that Barrett faculty ran a “national condemnation campaign.” A campaign is a systematic and coordinated effort to achieve a specific outcome. As Section 4 of this report indicates, while more than 30 Barrett faculty members signed a letter written to their dean to strongly oppose the event, our review revealed no evidence that Barrett faculty engaged in a coordinated national campaign of activities such as hiring a public relations firm, writing editorials in national publications, soliciting support from local or national media figures, soliciting news media coverage, soliciting support from political organizations, or communicating with donors.

Instead, Barrett Honors College faculty members reacted to public postings by the T.W. Lewis Center and the invited speakers. The primary mechanism used was a letter to their supervisor, Barrett Honors College Dean Tara Williams, expressing concern that the event was advertised in a way that suggested they had input, when they did not. They also questioned whether the speakers should be provided a university-hosted platform.

Portions of the letter were also strongly worded in ways that contributed to the overall controversy regarding the event.   However, this tone was not reflected in the university's own communications regarding the event, which sought to emphasize the importance of supporting freedom of expression across varying perspectives.

The university’s review did not find that any faculty members violated ASU policy with their actions in the classroom. Three Barrett faculty members were alleged by Ms. Atkinson to have made statements in the classroom that discouraged attending the Lewis Center event. ASU’s review did not find that any of the three faculty members told their students not to attend or implied that attending would affect their grades. One faculty member did not talk about the event in class at all. The other two responded to questions or concerns from students. One of the faculty members shared the faculty letter with students on her class website along with a message that expressed support for free speech and clarified that she did not have a role in choosing the speakers and she did not agree with them.

The university review did not find that university or Barrett administrators censored speech or interfered with advertising or attendance — quite the contrary, in fact. The event, which was designed by Ms. Atkinson as a fundraiser and an opportunity for the community to learn more about the Lewis Center, was advertised extensively in both free and paid media and on social media. Google ads purchased by ASU for the event received more than 1 million impressions. Students, who could attend free of charge, were also notified through the college newsletter, direct emails sent by Ms. Atkinson, in ASU News, and in print and digital flyers throughout the college. After the event had already been widely publicized, some digital ads were rotated in favor of other upcoming events. Although there was an allegation that the paper flyers were removed, there was no evidence that an ASU administrator directed such an undertaking. Barrett Honors College leadership arguably could have communicated better with Ms. Atkinson on its marketing decisions and intradepartmental coordination, but our review found that every effort was made to promote awareness of this event in the same manner as other comparable events.

The review found no evidence that any of the speakers at the event were prohibited from speaking freely to the audience of more than 1,500 people who attended in person and more than 24,000 who have watched it online. In fact, as indicated in Section 4 of this report, one of the speakers, Charlie Kirk, thanked the university for its commitment to free speech. The focus of the event and the choice of speakers were controlled by Ms. Atkinson in consultation with the donor who funded the center. When Ms. Atkinson expressed concern that controversy about the event could distract from the event’s intended purpose, she was advised that, as the event moderator, she could use the questions she asked to keep the event focused on the topics she wanted to address.

She was connected to campus resources to address security concerns or possible disruptions, and was advised on making a statement to set expectations for audience behavior by reminding attendees of the university’s commitment to free speech. Ms. Atkinson wrote her own remarks and questions — and the administration made no changes. University and college administration insisted that the “Health, Wealth & Happiness” event be held and did not consider canceling the event.

While there was plenty of strong disagreement expressed in personal social media posts, the review found no evidence that any Barrett faculty members “viciously and publicly attacked” one or more Lewis Center donors.

Finally, as noted in the Legislative hearing and other public forums, Ms. Atkinson’s employment ended because the donor who created and funded her position decided to discontinue his donation. Her job went away when the funding went away, a common situation at ASU and other universities with jobs that rely on donor or grant funding as the source for funding projects and the employment that supports them.

In summary, while the public controversy and discussion of the event were uncomfortable and challenging, the overall effort of those involved sought to balance the rights and obligations of all ASU students, faculty and community members in a complicated environment filled with strong differences of opinion.

While this review has not found that the specific allegations made by the former executive director of the Lewis Center are supported by the facts, it is certainly the case that ASU can always do more and always do better in its institutional efforts to advance free speech. Accordingly, ASU will be taking the actions identified in Section 6 of this report to further support the availability of the broadest range of ideas and opinions on any campus and to ensure that our “academic family dinner” is raucous and civil, challenging and educational, and disruptive and comfortable all at the same time.

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Key points:

Arizona’s public university campuses are open to any speaker invited by a student, student group, or faculty member. The public areas of campuses are open to speakers, protestors and demonstrators, provided that they follow neutral rules so that other university activities continue.



In summary, while the public controversy and discussion of the event were uncomfortable and challenging, the overall effort of those involved sought to balance the rights and obligations of all ASU students, faculty and community members in a complicated environment filled with strong differences of opinion.



In an exchange with Christa Cooper, the VP of Operations at the T.W. Lewis Company, Ms. Atkinson expressed her own concerns about whether Kirk would contribute to the intended focus of the event:

“Based on the title, I am thinking it may not be the best idea to include him in the Gammage event. We should seriously consider whether he would distract from the message of Tom, Dennis & Robert...



The event was publicized through the “Honors Digest,” an email newsletter sent twice weekly to all 6,500 Barrett students . . . The event also was supported by paid Google advertising from Jan. 23 to Feb. 8, which received a total of 1,057,749 impressions and generated 4,215 clicks.



As tensions escalated, ASU leadership remained committed to making sure the event occurred. Dean Williams reached out to Ms. Atkinson to confirm that it had not been postponed or canceled.



ASU’s review, however, did not find that any of these faculty members told their students not to attend or implied that attending would have any effect on their grade.



With respect to her role as executive director, Ms. Atkinson was specifically informed that the position was funded in whole or part by sources other than state appropriation and may terminate when funding is no longer available, a point made clearly in her offer letter when she accepted the job.



The cost of funding the executive director position, included salary and benefits, was about $300,000; the salary was higher than that of any other employee – faculty, staff or administrator – in the organization, second only to the dean, herself.