Shortly after 6 p.m., roughly 300 people had walked in the door of the Dennison Theatre at the University of Montana to hear a controversial speaker on tap for the 10th annual Jeff Cole lecture.
UM benefactor Maria Cole sponsors the event honoring her late husband and Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Cole.
Townhall columnist and University of North Carolina-Wilmington Professor and provocateur Mike Adams was on the agenda. Cole selected him partly because he won a First Amendment case. But he also targets LGBT people, Muslims and feminists and other minorities in his columns.
Cole opened the event in an unusual way for a large Missoula gathering. She asked the audience to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and followed it with prayer by a guest.
In a video clip, Sen. Steve Daines shamed UM because the School of Journalism dean did not want the school to sponsor the event this year with Cole citing his lack of credentials and potential to offend students. Rep. Greg Gianforte also shared a video message defending writers and some unbiased reporters; in November, Gianforte punched a Guardian reporter and broke his glasses.
Some audience members came to listen to a speaker with whom they know they will disagree. Chris Young-Greer, a UM student, said it’s important to hear alternate viewpoints, and she’s attending the lecture partly because she supports free speech.
“I also think it’s important to come and hear firsthand the rhetoric he speaks so we can combat that in an educational way,” Young-Greer said.
She herself is an African American in an interracial marriage, and she believes she might hear offensive remarks, but she said it won’t be the first time.
“I’ve heard worse, probably, by far better people,” Young-Greer said.
School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson’s decision to bow out of sponsoring this year’s Cole lecture for the first time flabbergasted Cole, who is reconsidering her giving to UM. She has given more than $1.2 million to the School of Journalism in some 15 years.
Although the dean did not appear to be in the audience at least shortly after 6 p.m., some UM and UM Foundation officials were in attendance, including former School of Journalism Dean and former Vice President for Communications Peggy Kuhr, journalism professor Dennis Swibold, current Vice President for Enrollment Tom Crady, and at least three representatives from the UM Foundation including CEO and President Cindy Williams.
Outside the Dennison Theatre, people gathered to protest the controversial speaker.
Police are standing out front, asking people if they have pocket knives with them, and security guards are using metal detectors and not allowing backpacks inside.
About 20 people are outside protesting Adams, a professor at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, chanting “No hate in our state!” and “My body my choice!” referencing Adams’ anti-abortion stance.
Marissa Compton, a UM law student, was among them.
“We do know the university doesn’t endorse this speaker, but as students, we just want to protest his presence on our campus,” she said.
Compton and some of her classmates handed out papers with printed Twitter posts by Adams as examples of the kind of speech they were protesting, including insults against gay couples, transgender people, and a joke about sexual harassment.
“I think as a professor he needs to be held to a standard in terms of respecting his students,” Compton said.
Two other people stood beside a banner that read “Freedom,” in support of Adams and free speech.
Cole selected Adams to give the 10th anniversary lecture that honors her late husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Cole, a 1980 UM graduate.
Signs posted on the theater doors read “No Bags Weapons or Signs” and “The views and opinions expressed during this private event are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views and values of the University of Montana.”
This story will be updated.