Before the crowd filtered into the Dennison Theater on Tuesday, Maria Cole made the rounds in a hurried meet-and-greet, and to brace for the night ahead.
Over the prior weeks, the longtime University of Montana benefactor had received her share of criticism for inviting provocateur Mike Adams to speak under the lecture series that carries her deceased husband’s name.
While that wasn’t easy, Cole stayed the course for a cause that she – and her husband – believed in: the rights protected under the First Amendment. The resulting controversy was just what she’d been looking for – a topic to get people talking.
“It’s a constitutional right and privilege,” Cole said before the event. “Plus, my husband would never have allowed censorship. He was all about the First Amendment and he was true to it. I have to honor him by standing up and doing the right thing.”
Jeff Cole, a University of Montana alumni, was the aviation and aerospace editor at the Wall Street Journal when he died in a Colorado plane crash at the age of 45. Maria Cole said he was at the “top of his game” when the accident occurred. He’d penned several hundred articles in the Wall Street Journal and went about his job with meticulous detail, fairness and thoroughness, she said.
For nine years prior to Tuesday night, the Jeff Cole Memorial Lecture had gone off without a hitch, though the crowds were decidedly smaller. That changed when several hundred people packed the Dennison Theater on the University of Montana campus to hear Adams profess his version of free speech and the alleged threats it faces in higher education.
While Adams has been panned by some as a divisive bigot looking for a stage, he offers what others view as the unsaid truth. In looking to schedule a speaker for the 10th annual Cole lecture, Adams’ provocation checked all the boxes.
“I was really looking for someone who could really do well with freedom of speech and be a little controversial,” Maria Cole said. “Free expression means free expression on all sides of the spectrum. We wanted a provocative speaker and I discussed this in collaboration with the children.”
Cole said she found Adams through an entertainment management firm, which sent her several dozen clips and bios of potential speakers. She spent days poring over the material, and it was Adams who caught her eye.
“When I hit on Mike Adams, I knew that he was the one,” she said. “I know it’s difficult for some people to accept, but again, it’s about free speech, and I have to honor that.”
For many in attendance on Tuesday night, Adams’ conservative take on speech and its limits marked a refreshing change from what some described as the status quo – that stubborn reputation that suggests college campuses are a nest of liberal thinking.
As the hour counted down before the forum began and security tightened, Cole was greeted as something of a hero. In a video message, Sen. Steve Daines praised her for “standing for what’s right,” and University District resident Jane Rectenwald sought her out to shake her hand.
“I don’t come to many things at UM because they’re usually one-sided,” said Rectenwald. “I’ve sat through enough programs to realize that I want to hear things where lots of people have ideas. So I’m delighted Maria stood her ground.”
Rectenwald, along with several others, expressed a vague familiarity with Adams’ controversial spin and the language that has earned him a bigoted reputation in the national media – and popularity among staunch conservatives.
“I think this idea of safe spaces at universities is childish,” Rectenwald said. “It’s not what intellectual people throughout the ages have welcomed. That’s what education is, being challenged to think about something differently that you have before.”
Those feelings weren’t shared by others, who asked how “some rich gal” like Cole can unilaterally decide who speaks on campus under the guise of free speech. “Bigots can come and spread their hate as long as they have a rich sponsor?” asked one.
GE Wiggin, who was ejected from the forum, offered similar sentiments.
“A community representative of the university, Maria Cole, invited a person who actively pushes hate speech in dog-whistle form, and who’s very selective in the way he speaks about free speech,” Wiggins said outside the venue. “He makes gross comparisons that don’t compare realistically, and it’s misleading and troubling.”
When asked if free speech had limits, Cole said yes, adding that speech that incites violence isn’t protected. While she doesn’t agree with everything Adams says, she believes each individual can decide for themselves if it’s right for them, or not.
She may also reconsider her relationship with UM and her role in sponsoring the annual lecture, she said.
“It’s been difficult,” Cole said. “We will definitely continue the Jeff Cole Scholarship for sure. But the children and I are going to reevaluate things and explore where we can do the most good. So there might be some changes, but we’ll certainly decide that later.”