More than 700 people have registered to hear a controversial professor lecture Tuesday at the University of Montana despite an earlier rash of "bogus" signups from a local activist group which wanted an empty audience, according to the event sponsor and campus benefactor.
Sponsor Maria Cole said members of Missoula Rises, a local group that aims to create local change and be "inclusive," registered for 400 tickets they didn't intend to use at the lecture by columnist and provocateur Mike Adams. Cole said some people signed up under fake names such as Garth Brooks and Jeff Sessions, and she spent five days cleaning up the registration.
"Shame on them," Cole said. "Shame on them because I don't pull obstructionist tactics like that. What they were literally trying to do was obstruct free speech."
Adams, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, will give the 10th anniversary lecture that honors Maria Cole's late husband and Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Cole at an event scheduled from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13.
Adams is an incendiary writer for Townhall.com who regularly jabs leftists and stances he sees as hypocritical, and his views earlier sparked a petition for his termination at UNC. He has targeted LGBT people, Muslims and feminists, and he has described transgender people as mentally ill.
Erin Erickson, head of Missoula Rises, estimated the total number of tickets the group reserved at closer to 223, but she said the activism is in line with the group's mission.
"The point is to make it a peaceful, nonviolent direct action that does not place additional strain on the university, campus security or law enforcement, and limits his public message," Erickson said.
Adams' columns appear designed to draw fire. He also won a First Amendment case in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a free speech lawsuit against UNC after being improperly denied a promotion.
The UM School of Journalism has sponsored the Jeff Cole lecture the past nine years, and before Missoula Rises tried to shut down the speaker, Dean Larry Abramson objected to Adams. He argued the columnist doesn't have stellar media credentials and that a speaker could be selected "without running the risk of offending students."
The decision drew support from some faculty members who describe Adams' statements as racist, homophobic and misogynistic, but it also raised objections from critics troubled with the dean's inclination to avoid speech rather than defend the First Amendment and principles taught at a journalism school.
Cole, who has given more than $1.2 million to the School of Journalism, is still reconsidering her giving as a result.
A protest is planned Tuesday, and in a message to the campus, UM President Seth Bodnar asked people to express views peacefully and productively. He said the campus must allow diverse views, even ones "ill-informed, odious, and antithetical to our values."
"Allowing someone to speak on our campus is not an endorsement of his or her views, nor do we condone speech that is hateful or targets people based on their identities," Bodnar wrote. "What a speaker says may define him or her, but it does not define us. It is possible for us to stand firmly in support of free speech while also standing firm in our values."
Cole said a member of Missoula Rises alerted her to the false signups, and she was incredulous that an organization that claims to be "founded in love" would attempt to obstruct free speech. "That's hateful in my mind."
"Love" is a theme in Missoula Rises blog posts, with pictures of hearts and the hashtag #lovearmy. One post said "THANK YOU for continually putting yourself out there and leading the uncertain charge with love and bravery."
Said Cole: "Maria Cole is not feeling the love right now."
Erickson said she wants to be clear that the group does not believe in censorship or the restriction of speech based on political views, but she said the speaker doesn't have the right to "promulgate hate."
"So that's really what we're protesting is Maria Cole giving him a public platform to perpetuate or promulgate hate speech," Erickson said.
Adams' talk is titled "The Death of Liberal Bias in Higher Education," but Erickson said Missoula Rises doesn't have a transcript and doesn't know if he'll stick to the agenda. If the group had succeeded, its members might have taken away some people's ability to hear the talk.
"They have the opportunity to reserve tickets as well. I don't know what to say about that," Erickson said.