Among the reasons Sam Duncan decided to heckle Mike Adams, the Christian conservative free-speech crusader who spoke at the University of Montana last month, is that Adams claims people like Duncan are sick in the head.
Duncan, a Missoula resident with a master’s degree from UM, is gender non-binary and prefers they/their pronouns. Adams frequently targets LGBTQ people as a columnist for Townhall.com, where he’s described transgender people as mentally ill and “suffering from a delusion.”
As Adams’ controversial Feb. 13 lecture approached, Duncan remembers thinking, “If I’m going to disrupt this person, I’m going to do it as gay as I possibly can.”
So halfway through Adams’ talk at the Dennison Theatre, Duncan rose from their seat near the stage, played Rihanna’s “Sex with Me” through a small speaker and walked out carrying a sign made from butcher paper. The sign read, “Suck a dick Mike Adams. (We won’t judge you).”
Adams thrived on protesters that night, using them as fodder for his argument that conservative voices are marginalized on college campuses. But he seemed rattled by Duncan, and an audience member had to remind him what he’d been talking about.
Nine days later, Adams made Duncan’s stunt the centerpiece of a call for Montana lawmakers to pass legislation that Adams says will “restore respect for freedom of speech.” In a Feb. 22 Townhall.com column titled “An Open Letter to the Montana Legislature,” Adams argued that campus pushback to his appearance — which the School of Journalism had declined to sponsor despite donor Maria Cole’s request — demonstrates the suppression of conservative speech at Montana universities. Soon after the column was published, Missoula state Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Republican, told radio station KGVO that he plans to draft a bill in the spirit of Adams’ request.
But the version of events that Adams offered to persuade lawmakers doesn’t add up. His column claimed that the “adult male student” who held the “suck a (expletive for male sex organ)” sign later returned to the theater to disrupt the speech a second time. Adams claimed the same student, whom he described as a music major, was ejected again, then used a stolen key to re-enter the building a third time and shouted over Adams from behind the stage curtains until being ejected once more.
“Therefore, this incident involves more than mere heckling. It involves criminal conduct,” Adams wrote. “The incident underscores the need for President [Seth] Bodnar to take a break from lecturing me on ‘divisiveness’ and ‘intolerance’ and ‘hate’ and instead deal with the criminal/students that have overtaken his campus. Of course, there is little chance that he will display the courage necessary to bring that about. And that is why I am writing the legislature today.”
Duncan disputes Adams’ account, saying they never returned or attempted to return to the event after leaving. Marty Ludemann, chief of UM police, says event staff did identify one student who seemed to have re-entered the theater after being removed, and may have done so using a department-issued key. Ludemann decided only to pass the name to the dean of students, because, “at that point, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Ludemann says. (Dean Rhondie Voorhees now says she plans to meet with that student, but has yet to.)
As for the alleged heckler behind the curtain, Ludemann says he was asked by event staff to investigate a noise, but in exploring the backstage passageways, all he found were two students working loudly on an art project in another part of the building.
“I have no idea where [Adams] is getting all that information, because we don’t know that information. I don’t, anyway,” Ludemann says.
Adams did not respond to two emails for comment. The legislation he’s advocating, enacted in North Carolina last year, would require university police and deans to respond more aggressively to disruptions at campus events with a range of punishments, including expulsion. The policy adopted in North Carolina applies to any activity that qualifies as disorderly conduct, trespass or disruption under state law.
In a statement, ACLU of Montana Advocacy and Policy Director SK Rossi says the North Carolina provision requiring penalties for students who protest speakers is “troubling,” and that the organization would work with Montana lawmakers to make sure any legislation introduced on the topic in 2019 “balances First Amendment rights with our colleges’ and universities’ affirmative obligation to combat racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bias.”
Hopkins did not respond to two voicemails seeking comment, but he told KGVO that he sees a need for redress in situations where Montana universities treat liberal and conservative speakers differently. Duncan, meanwhile, doesn’t see how Adams’ experience at UM illustrates a need for legislative protection.
“He’s exactly who gets a mouthpiece in this country,” Duncan says. “A Christian white man? Are you fucking kidding me?”