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Courtesy of Michael S. Williamson

Journalism School professor Dale Maharidge was included in an online 'watchlist' of leftist professors.

When Journalism School professor Dale Maharidge saw that he had appeared on an online watchlist of leftist professors, he took to Twitter to share his reaction.

"I'm on this list. Guess I'm supposed to be scared. Nah. It's going on my CV," Maharidge wrote.

The website, called Professor Watchlist, was set up last week by the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA "to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." Over 200 professors have already been added to the list and the website has been covered by national publications including the New York Times and Slate.

Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by an 18-year-old named Charlie Kirk. Today, it is funded by Illinois' Republican governor Bruce Rauner and other prominent conservative donors.

The creation of the watchlist comes during a time when universities in particular have expressed concerns about threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom following Donald Trump's presidential victory. This issue is particularly prominent at Columbia, a university that consistently prides itself on its commitment to free speech. University President Lee Bollinger recently told attendees of the Hamilton Award Dinner that Trump's election poses a serious danger to the values of the institution.

"The attack on free speech, the dissemination of falsehoods deliberately and intentionally that would make George Orwell seem naïve and unimaginative—these are not political issues," Bollinger said. "This is a challenge to what we stand for."

Some faculty members have raised concerns that the watchlist is only one example of the potential threats to academic freedom during the impending Trump presidency. They worry that  the president-elect's rhetoric, which recently included proposing revoking citizenship for those who burn flags—will usher in an era of intellectual prosecution reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

In 2011, Project Veritas, a conservative foundation, sent someone to pose as a prospective student and film Maharidge in his office. When they published the footage, Maharidge lashed out on social media and wrote a piece for the Huffington Post. The website cited this incident as the reason for Maharidge's appearance on the list.

Though Maharidge seemed relatively unconcerned with the personal consequences of being on the list, he said the website's apparent disregard for any standards of evidence reflected poor journalism. Maharidge was also concerned that the website held similarities with past campaigns against free thought.

"This is deadly serious. Look at fascism in Europe. These were buffoons in Europe. Don't underestimate buffoons. Trump is president. Don't underestimate these people," Maharidge said. "So I'm laughing at it, but I'm also concerned in that this is a dangerous kind of McCarthy approach."

Maharidge said that since he makes a point to respect conservatives in the classroom, he did not believe that the website's criticism of him was justified. Furthermore, he noted that the Project Veritas incident was unrelated to his treatment of conservatives in the classroom.

"I tell students we need diversity of opinion—this is a good thing, I encourage it. That's what academic institutions are about," Maharidge said. "I had a student who announced he's a Republican—we totally got along, I don't think he felt he was singled out. As a matter of fact, he seemed friendly within the class."

Other faculty members agreed that websites like Professor Watchlist set a dangerous precedent, and that the information on the site is not based on fact.

Journalism professor Howard French said that he had witnessed the impulse to persecute unpopular speech in his work as an international reporter. He emphasized that freedom of expression was an important value in the United States, especially at universities.

"I'm familiar with the slippery slope that this represents," French said. "Societies that foster intolerance of this kind, and that police speech in this kind of way, can end up in very bad places. The right to free exchange of ideas in America is one of our most sacred rights, and in the space of the university is one of the things that most distinguishes this country."

While Journalism professor Todd Gitlin acknowledged that the implications of the watchlist should be carefully monitored, he emphasized that under no circumstances should its content be taken seriously.

"It is another species of falsehood running around on the internet, and in terms of credibility and value, it is somewhere between 'the moon is green cheese' and 'Ted Cruz's father was involved in the plot to kill Ted Kennedy,'" Gitlin said. | @ColumbiaSpec

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