Additional Information about Targeted Harassment

What is Targeted Harassment and What Is Not?

Targeted harassment goes beyond mere criticism of individuals by students or members of the community. Targeted harassment refers to attacking an individual using threats and coercion. The practice of targeted harassment can take the form of publication of the personal information (doxxing), direct threats to the individual and their family, coordinated harassing calls to the department, institution, or administration, and even the manipulation of reviews on websites like RateMyProfessors.com for political motives. Much of the media’s attention to this issue has focused on university campuses and attacks on professors. Student complaints against professors and campus protests—while they may potentially undermine academic freedom—do not constitute targeted harassment. While students may make individual or group complaints against individual professors for behavior in the classroom by going through institutional channels or even writing petitions to administrators, we see a difference between student complaints regarding classroom behavior and organized mass harassment campaigns, which typically include significant off-campus participation and more coercive and threatening attacks intended to punish the exercise of political speech.

Sources and Reasons for Targeted Harassment

Targeted harassment may appear spontaneous, but studies of these attacks by numerous journalists and the AAUP demonstrate that such attacks are driven by a small number of organizations, funded by an even smaller circle of large donors, and follow a common pattern, beginning with out-of-context and sensationalized reports published on websites such as “Campus Reform” or “The College Fix.” Following that, the report is picked up by conservative television news, and waves of harassing and threatening emails and phone calls to the faculty member and the institution follow. As Isaac Kamola wrote in a study for the AAUP, “attacks follow a common logic: stoke outrage in ways that fuel the now-common narrative that college professors are recklessly irresponsible and dangerous. These individual attacks, however, also have a larger political objective. They use these examples to generally discredit colleges and universities, painting them as places that shelter and enable deviant and socially unacceptable ideas. The result is a manufactured narrative wielded by billionaire donors to suggest that parents, students, state governments, foundations, and other funders of higher education demand greater oversight over these apparently untrustworthy and unruly faculty.” Read Isaac Kamola's AAUP study

The groups most often involved in these campaigns include:

  • Campus Reform, a project of the Koch-funded Leadership Institute
  • The College Fix - funded by the DeVos family
  • Turning Point USA - funded by Rauner, Freiss, and Koch foundation
  • Breitbart News - funded by Robert and Rebeka Mercer
  • The Washington Times - funded by Kochs and Moon
  • The Daily Caller - Tucker Carlson, Koch
  • Fox News

While some of these campaigns may arise spontaneously from student activists following a report on a local educator, many such attacks target those already identified on Turning Point USA’s “professor watchlist” because of publications espousing liberal or left-leaning political views. The AAUP compares such political campaigns that use individual professors to attack universities in general to earlier attacks by the John Birch Society in the 1960s and the “Accuracy in Academia” movement of the 1980s. Read the AAUP's article on Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty

Johnny Eric Williams, Trinity College
Dr. Williams was suspended from his position at Trinity College after his comments about the history of African American responses to police violence that were taken out of context in a post on “Campus Reform.”

Lora D. Burnett, Collin College
Dr. Burnett was fired from her position at Collin College after Campus Reform and Fox News attacked her for a tweet criticizing the Vice President during one of the 2020 Vice Presidential debates.

Dana Cloud, Syracuse University
Dr. Cloud’s administration supported her following a social media attack on her for a tweet she posted about attending an anti-fascist protest.

Amanda Gailey and Courtney Lawton, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Dr. Gailey and Ms. Lawton were both targeted by right-wing activists following a story about their presence protesting the group Turning Point USA on campus. Dr. Gailey retained her position, but Ms. Lawton, a graduate student, was dismissed—in violation of due process, according to the AAUP.

George Cichiarello-Maher
Dr. Cichiarello-Maher resigned from his position at Drexel University after a series of campaigns against him for tweets that led to his suspension and ultimately included over 800 threatening emails, including threats against his child.

David Hawn
Tennessee coach and teacher fired by the school board for teaching Ta-Nehsi Coates.

James Whitfield
Texas high school principal was accused by a group of parents of embracing critical race theory. The district responded by suspending Whitfield and threatening not to renew his contract, though they refused to confirm that CRT was the reason for the suspension.

For Administrators:

  • Understand when attacks are politically motivated rather than spontaneous reactions
  • Trust the faculty member being attacked; do not give the “benefit of the doubt” to attackers’ version of the story

  • Publicly defend academic freedom and faculty governance

  • Refer to these events as attacks and name the attacker

  • Preemptively plan for attacks with social media policies and public recognition of academic freedom and free speech

  • Adhere to established policies rather than reacting through “ad-hoc” processes

  • Consider taking steps to ban the surreptitious recording of classroom activity

For Faculty:

Model University Policies with Protection for Targeted Faculty:

Peter Schmidt, “Higher Education’s Outrage Machine” (Sept 8, 2015)

AAUP, “Fighting Targeted Harassment of Faculty”

Joan W. Scott, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom 8 (2017)

Jennifer Ruth, “When Academic Bullies Claim the Mantle of Free Speech,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 18, 2021)

A report on cases of targeted harassment that document the cycles of targeted harassment from the classroom to “Campus Reform” to Fox News

Johnny Eric Williams, “The Academic Freedom Double-Standard” (2018)

Alt-right Attacks on Universities (2018)