How Far-Right Campaigns Are Pressuring Universities to Censor Speech - Pacific Standard

How Universities Facilitate Far-Right Groups' Harassment of Students and Faculty

Since he was accused of "attacking conservative students," Tariq Khan has faced harassment and death threats.
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The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

On November 16th, 2017, Tariq Khan, a United States Air Force veteran, father of three, and Ph.D. student of history at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, was speaking at an on-campus anti-Trump rally when another student, Joel Valdez, shouted, "Don't you have kids to look after?" Taking Valdez's comments to be a veiled threat against his children, Khan confronted him. In the argument that ensued, Khan took Valdez's cell phone—which Valdez had been sticking in Khan's face—but shortly thereafter left it on the ground and walked away.*

The event is unremarkable, even common in this era of polarized politics, which made what followed all the more surprising.

Edited footage of the altercation captured by Valdez's friends was included in a story about Khan "attacking conservative students" on the website Campus Reform, mouthpiece of Turning Point USA, a far-right student organization with ties to the alt-right and white nationalists. (Campus Reform is a project of the Leadership Institute, which also sponsors TPUSA; Valdez is a member of TPUSA.) The doctored video and misleading story made the rounds of right-wing media, re-appearing on Infowars, Breitbart, and the Tea Party's website.

A deluge of calls and emails to the University of Illinois followed, some demanding Khan's expulsion, some threatening his life. While the charge of criminal damage to property filed against Khan following the altercation was dismissed and Khan's academic department continued supporting him, the school's Office for Student Conflict Resolution caved to the pressure, sanctioning Khan with anger management, as well as placing him on conduct probation for the remainder of his studies.

In a Kafkaesque twist, the Campus Reform video was used as the primary evidence against him. "I mean, it had a Campus Reform logo on it," says Khan of the video, "and the deans were using that like it was neutral evidence."

This incident is not unique. Perhaps the most prominent example of such far-right harassment involves George Ciccariello-Maher, a former tenured associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University. In December, Ciccariello-Maher announced his resignation from Drexel following a yearlong campaign of harassment facilitated by groups like Campus Reform and TPUSA that resulted in the school placing him on administrative leave for "his safety and the safety of Drexel's community."

Khan believes TPUSA first set its sights on him a few weeks before his confrontation with Valdez. In late October, university students, with the support of the Illinois Student Government, had demonstrated against the involvement of the racist mascot Chief Illiniwek in the school's annual homecoming parade. (The mascot has technically been retired since 2007, yet still appears at games and other university events.) During a subsequent meeting of the Illinois Student Government on November 1st, Khan expressed support for the protesters, while Andrew Minik—president of the local TPUSA chapter, who would later write the Campus Reform article about Khan—denounced them. When the floor opened for community comments, Valdez verbally harassed a woman in the audience and was censured by the meeting's chair, according to Khan.

At the time, Khan had only a second-hand familiarity with TPUSA's tactics on campus. He was aware, for example, that TPUSA members had previously stalked the woman Valdez harassed at the student government meetings. They had also filmed her without her consent, lobbied her academic department to expel her, and pressured her employer to fire her—all because of her involvement in a Chicano student group. TPUSA members waged a similar campaign of harassment against another woman, a friend of Khan's who had been openly critical of Chief Illiniwek. Khan had also previously witnessed Valdez and two other TPUSA members filming while attempting to provoke demonstrators protesting an on-campus appearance of Charlie Kirk, founder of TPUSA.

So when Khan confronted Valdez on November 16th, he had some understanding of the extreme lengths to which TPUSA could go. And when Valdez shouted at him, Khan took it to be a veiled threat—one that intimated a knowledge of his family that could be exploited, perhaps to violent ends—and he reacted in an attempt to rebuff that threat.

The dismissal of Khan's criminal charges undercut the accusations of assault, robbery, and property destruction made against him by Campus Reform. The police declined to detain him, even after he appeared at the station to give his own report of the incident. No one seemed to find merit in the case against him, except for the far right and, eventually, the University of Illinois' Office for Student Conflict Resolution.

On the basis of the Campus Reform video, Khan was charged with violating the student code for "bumping chests" with Valdez. He arrived at his OSCR hearing with a binder full of materials detailing his version of the events, as well as documenting TPUSA's far-right ideology and its history of harassment, including testimonies from other students targeted by the group and examples of the threats he had been receiving via email and social media since the incident. Assistant Dean of Students Rony Die would hear none of it. (OSCR declined to comment on Khan's case.) "They kept telling me, "It's [Valdez’s] free speech,'" Khan says.

Khan was put on conduct probation for the rest of his time at the University of Illinois and required to complete anger management sessions, which he would have to pay for himself.

The fallout did not end with Khan's censure by OSCR. In addition to sharing his contact information—and thereby enabling the threats against him and his family—Khan accuses Valdez, Minik, and other TPUSA members of harassing his wife, who is not a University of Illinois student, at an off-campus, non-university-related event until police escorted them out. Later that night, the windows of a car in the event space's parking lot were broken. On another night, Khan's wife discovered a masked man in their front yard, taking pictures of their car's license plate. Khan and the chair of his academic department reported these incidents, along with the stream of death threats, to local police, but thus far nothing has been done.

In April, Valdez, Minik, and another TPUSA member filed a lawsuit against the school and Khan, claiming that their rights had been violated when Assistant Dean Die issued them orders not to contact Khan following the incident with his wife. Earlier this month, the University of Illinois requested the suit be dismissed.

Citing the pending litigation and federal privacy laws, the University of Illinois declined to comment on the lawsuit or OSCR's case against Khan, stating only that it is "committed to protecting the rights of expression and speech of all members of our community."

In considering the recourse left to him, Khan sounds exhausted. "TPUSA members still stalk me and film me," he says. "I've reported it to the Title IX office, the police, and OSCR, but it continues. ... No one in authority is doing anything to stop it and I am not allowed to defend myself."

Khan has filed a counterclaim to the suit against him, but more than anything else, he appears to want to move on. "I'm hoping to finish my dissertation in the new academic year, but all of this harassment, threats, and legal nonsense have wasted a lot of my time and mental and emotional energy, so I am far behind where I would have been had these TPUSA mercenaries not chosen to aggrandize themselves by attacking me," he says. "I'm a working-class military veteran with three children who makes less than a living wage, and these billionaire-funded rich white boys have decided to spend all this effort making a name for themselves by harming me and my family."

*Update—July 2nd, 2018: This story has been updated with the correct date of the on-campus rally. It occurred on November 16th, 2017.

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