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645: My Effing First Amendment

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace?

Zoe Chace

Yes Ira Glass?

Ira Glass

You brought some tape to play?

Zoe Chace

Yeah. I brought some tape from this trip that I was on recently.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our program. It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago.

Zoe Chace

So on this trip, I was in an interesting room.

Charlie Kirk

A couple ground rules. There will be no safe spaces, no trigger warnings, no microaggressions.

[CHEERING]

We are going to have-- we're going to have some honest discussion here.

Zoe Chace

We're in a huge auditorium surrounded by more than 2,000 conservative college students. It's a bunch of young people in sports coats and ties and dresses and heels.

Charlie Kirk

And the media has said, oh, there's no young conservatives out there. You have to be liberal if you're in college. And every single one of you here today-- from all 50 states, by the way-- are here to tell the media, colleges, and the elites that our generation will not embrace socialism.

Zoe Chace

This is Charlie Kirk, and this room is at a big conference he's throwing. Charlie Kirk's organization is called Turning Point USA-- kind of a pumped up version of the College Republicans is how I describe it. And they recruit and train conservative students to be conservative activists on their campuses. Charlie, he's 24. He's preppy. He still technically lives in his parents' house outside Chicago.

Ira Glass

Technically means--

Zoe Chace

Means that's his domicile. But he's on the road more than 300 days out of the year. He founded this group something like five years ago. They have a ton of money from conservative donors. This year, they're going to have a budget close to $14 to $15 million, someone close to the organization told me. Took place in a really fancy hotel right near Mar-a-Lago, actually.

Charlie Kirk

The son of the president of the United States, Donald Trump Jr.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

Wait, Donald Trump Jr. was there?

Zoe Chace

Yeah. Charlie Kirk, the head of the organization, and Donald Trump Jr. are friends. So this conference, it's premised on the idea that there's an important battleground right now in America that conservatives are losing. They've been losing this battle for years. That's college campuses, college campuses overrun by liberal bias. Conservatives feel embattled. They feel outnumbered.

Ira Glass

Now, this is nothing new, conservatives saying this.

Zoe Chace

True. And the Koch brothers and other conservative donors are throwing millions of dollars at this. To change our politics, they want to change our culture. To change the culture, you have to change universities. And the speakers at this conference, they make it sound like this is a life or death moment.

Man 1

We are in a nonviolent-- and I pray to God it remains nonviolent-- civil war. There are unbridgeable gaps between left and right.

Man 2

We are at war, right? We're not debating Obamacare. We're not debating tax cuts. We're not debating the border. We're debating America.

Man 3

But all of you are now messengers. All of you are now part of the fight. All of you are the people who are going to go back to your campuses and convert 10 other people. You should always wear that target proudly on your back because they will come for you. And when they come for you, the only way those bullets are going to bounce off is if you're made of steel. Thanks so much.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

Well, I have to say, those are some very powerful speakers.

They are doing a good job for those kids.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. Here's the new thing I learned at this conference, is that there are now outside groups and a whole infrastructure fighting this war on American campuses. The tinder is there for the fire, for sure. People are ready for a crazy fight on all sides. But now, there are a number of relatively new, big, well-funded national organizations like this one, like Turning Point USA, which are fanning the flames and spreading the fire.

Ira Glass

And I would say that that is what our program is about today. We're going to see this play out on one campus and see just how easy it is for these things to blow up into a huge, raging wildfire. But Zoe, before we get to that, what exactly happens at this conference?

Zoe Chace

The conference is for tactical advice on how to fight this war on campus. So for example-- so invite a conservative speaker to campus.

Man

You don't just have a right to bring people to campus. You don't just have a right to stand up for yourself and speak out. I think you have an obligation.

Zoe Chace

Now, in some cases, a college will try to stop the speaker. They'll think they're too controversial or charge a big security fee for that speaker. And there's a panel for what to do if that happens. The panel is called "Sue Your School 101: Knowing and Defending the First Amendment on Campus."

Man

Anybody here from Wisconsin?

[CHEERING]

Awesome. So we have sued your university system seven times. So thanks. You guys are great.

Zoe Chace

There are panels like "Socialism is for Suckers," "48 Liberal Lies," "Was Jesus a Socialist?"

Ira Glass

I'm going to guess the answer to that is no?

Zoe Chace

It is no. He was not. At night, the nighttime activity was a protest. Basically, anti-Trumpers of West Palm Beach came out to protest this conference.

And honestly, it seemed almost too perfect, as though the conference had planned it. They did not. But it just felt like a way to get your conservative jollies out by yelling about some of the stuff they've been talking about all day. There were these super eclectic chants, like "taxation is theft."

Protesters

Taxation is theft! Taxation is theft! Taxation is theft!

Zoe Chace

This one is hard to hear. This girl in the back yells out, "How many genders are there?"

Protester

How many genders are there?

Protesters

Two.

Protester

How many genders are there?

Protesters

Two.

Zoe Chace

This insistence from Turning Point kids that there are only two genders, that gets brought up a lot, and it feels kind of random. And I figured out it's kind of a battle cry for these kids on the right. They're just basically saying, you are irrational, to the left. Of course, that dismissal of transgender and non-binary people can and often does come across as incredibly hateful.

Ira Glass

So they're chanting this stuff?

Zoe Chace

Yeah. And making videos. In fact, that was a big thing this conference seemed to be about, was making videos. How to make videos to fight back against the left on their campuses. There were a bunch of panels about that-- the art of the click, how to make political viral content, things like that. The idea is, even if you're isolated on your campus, there's a huge network out there of conservative news that's hungry for the video and will tell your story.

Ben Shapiro

If you have a cell phone, then you are now a reporter. If you are on a college campus, you have things that are worth covering.

Zoe Chace

This is Ben Shapiro, a big name conservative speaker who also founded The Daily Wire.

Ben Shapiro

I run a publication. It has about 100 million page views a month. If you email me with your story and we can verify it and check it, make sure it's true, we'll run with it. And this is true for Fox News, this is true for Daily Caller, this is true for Breitbart. This is true for all of the major right-wing publications. And so granting exposure is the easiest way to bring shame to a lot of these folks who deserve it.

Zoe Chace

At this other panel called "Fighting the PC Police," this guy, Cabot Phillips-- he's a clean cut 24-year-old guy. He's just adored. It seems like everyone in the session knows him. And both of his sessions were packed. He gave tips on exactly, step by step, how do you make an effective video on your phone?

Cabot Phillips

As far as video goes-- we all know this. How do we film our videos, guys?

Student 1

Horizontal.

Student 2

Horizontal.

Cabot Phillips

Horizontal, heck yeah. If you film your videos vertically, you are not worthy of love.

[LAUGHTER]

You're not a good person.

Zoe Chace

And Cabot is the media director with a news site whose entire purpose is to document and publicize liberalism run amok on campus. It's called Campus Reform. They pay conservative students at colleges across the country to be correspondents, scouring their campuses for stories. Some are small, like, "College Republicans email list used to, quote, 'identify the racists,'" or "college turns gym into man-free space."

Ira Glass

I love that these sound like Onion headlines, but from a right-wing perspective.

Zoe Chace

I know. But these are real things that happen. One of them was about students demanding free tampons in both men and women's bathrooms. They did this by painting their pants with fake blood stains. It's called a bleed-in. That's a story.

Ira Glass

And so all of these are basically conservatives writing about how crazy liberals are on the campuses or how hard it is to be a conservative on campus.

Zoe Chace

Right. One prime type of video that Cabot from Campus Reform talked about is one that you would take when, say, you're out with your little table and you're trying to sign people up for your Turning Point USA chapter on your campus. You're in the middle of the quad. And there's this thing that's come up on public universities lately that I just found out about recently. It's the free speech zone. The free speech zone is this area of campus where all political activity, any protest or political advocacy, it's confined to one area.

Cabot Phillips

A lot of times, people don't realize it's completely unconstitutional.

Zoe Chace

And if you are tabling outside of the free speech zone, someone from the university may come up to you and tell you to move to the free speech zone. And that's your cue.

Cabot Phillips

Whip your phone out. Start filming. Stay calm. Be polite. There's no need to be a jerk. But just ask them. I'm not saying I won't leave, but what will happen if I choose not to leave?

Zoe Chace

The very best video to get, it seems, the creme de la creme-- this is the impression I got-- it's filming triggered snowflakes. You know a snowflake?

Ira Glass

Yes, of course. A snowflake is a liberal who is easily offended.

Zoe Chace

Right. Like, say a right-wing student group's posters are torn down. They may be torn down by snowflakes who are triggered by those posters. Cabot plays this one super viral video of a girl in an audience at an event screaming, "Get your hate speech off our campus. Get your hate speech off our campus." His point is that a snowflake can be triggered by your very existence on campus.

Cabot Phillips

And they do this thing where they will just throw out name calling. That's the first tactic they use, where they'll say, you're a racist. You're a bigot homophobe. You are a part of the patriarchy, whatever that means. You're all these things.

And it kind of sucks getting called that. No matter how untrue it is-- which it is, untrue. No matter how untrue it is, it's still like, I don't really want to get called that on campus. So maybe I won't speak up because I don't want to have to deal with this.

They don't just want you guys to be quiet. OK? The left on your campus doesn't just want you to stop talking. They want you to completely be off of their campus because your ideas make them feel that unsafe.

Zoe Chace

He's right. A lot of people on the left do say that ideas on the right make him feel unsafe. So things can explode and get out of hand really quickly.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we see a brand new Turning Point recruit head out and try the things that Turning Point USA tells students to do and trains them to do. During this moment in our history where everybody assumes the absolute worst about each other, we watch this newbie head right into the thick of it-- a sophomore, 19 years old when this starts.

Our reporter for this story is somebody who knows this world well. He's been covering these fights on campus for The Chronicle of Higher Education. His name Steve Kolowich. And let's just get right to it. Here he is.

Round One: The Brawl on the Mall

Steve Kolowich

Katie Mullen knew she wanted to start a Turning Point chapter at her school after she went to her first conference, the Young Women's Leadership Summit last summer.

Katie Mullen

And it was just really empowering in the fact that the whole conference, we were just talking about how there's no really glass ceiling. There's just skies above. There's nothing that we can't do. And just being around that many women, I think, just as a whole, was really empowering.

Steve Kolowich

The first time Katie remembers having a strong political feeling was in high school, while listening to Rush Limbaugh with her grandmother. He was criticizing Obamacare in a way that really resonated with her. She became the kind of teenager who would write to her congressman.

She arrived at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNL, just as the 2016 presidential election was entering the home stretch. Most of her friends on campus weren't that into politics. She liked the idea of being connected to other young people who were just as excited about it as she was. Turning Point looked fun. Its founder, Charlie Kirk, wasn't much older than she was. And he was really good at Twitter.

Last summer, she went to her second Turning Point conference. This one was for chapter leaders. She met Charlie Kirk. She made new friends. And she came back to campus in the fall, fired up to spread the gospel of liberty and capitalism.

On August 25 last year, Katie tried tabling on campus for the first time on the plaza outside the student union. Turning Point had sent her a starter kit with stickers and buttons that said things like "Socialism Sucks" and "I Heart Capitalism." Her club wasn't official yet, so Katie wanted to do some recruiting.

Can you sort of give me your pitch? If I were a student coming up to your table, what would you say?

Katie Mullen

OK. Well, it was my first time out there, so I was a little-- I don't think I was a really good saleswoman. I was more timid that day, waiting for people to come up to me. But people passing by, I would ask them how they felt about capitalism or what their belief on socialism was, and just get a conversation started.

Steve Kolowich

Katie set up her table in the place where there is a lot of foot traffic, just like Turning Point says to do. And sure enough, along came a university employee.

University Employee

We're going to have to ask you guys to move this to the free speech zone or we'll have to have UNLPD remove you. It's completely up to you.

Katie Mullen

But isn't this a public university?

University Employee

Not with propaganda. You can free speech all you want, but you cannot hand out propaganda.

Katie Mullen

But isn't this a public university?

Steve Kolowich

Katie stood her ground. She recorded the interaction on her phone.

Katie Mullen

We've always been told, pics or it didn't happen. So it's kind of the same thing-- videos or it didn't happen.

University Employee

Free speech zone is over here on the other side of the Memorial Plaza sign.

Steve Kolowich

That video alone would have been a good get for Turning Point, confirmation that yet another college campus wanted to silence conservative ideas. But then, bigger game wandered onto the plaza, a full-throated liberal zealot.

Courtney Lawton

I saw the table for Turning Point USA. And I was like, oh, hell no. I was like, not on my campus. No, no, no, no, no.

Steve Kolowich

This is Courtney Lawton. She's 47. She's getting her PhD in English. And at the time, she was also an instructor in the English department, teaching freshman writing classes.

Courtney Lawton

They were out trolling for liberals. And they got a live one on the line with me.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney had read about Turning Point and believed it was far more sinister than Katie's table made it appear. She first learned about it because of the Professor Watchlist, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Turning Point publishes the names of professors who have said things that are offensive to its values and puts their photos on the website. Offenses that can land the professor on the Watchlist include sniping at Republicans, being anti-Israel, writing too urgently about white privilege or the patriarchy, or saying the NRA is partly to blame for mass shootings.

Courtney knew of professors who had been bombarded with violent or hateful messages, and even placed on leave or fired after having their misdeeds trumpeted by conservative media outlets like Campus Reform. Courtney thinks Turning Point puts a target on professors' backs.

Courtney Lawton

They harass professors. They provoke them. They send agent provocateurs to college campuses. They also want to remove the humanities from the curriculum if that curriculum is not sufficiently conservative.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney left the plaza and rushed back to her office, grabbed some poster board and a marker, and scrawled a sign that said--

Courtney Lawton

"Just say no to neo-Fascism."

Steve Kolowich

When Courtney says neo-Fascism, she basically means the platform of the current Republican Party-- anti-abortion, pro-gun, hard-line on immigration. My producer Dana Chivvis and I talked to Courtney together.

Dana Chivvis

Can you be pro-Trump and not a fascist?

Courtney Lawton

Nope, I don't think so.

Dana Chivvis

Who did you write the sign for?

Courtney Lawton

People walking by. People who were thinking that, oh, this looks like a cool-- oh, no. This is neo-Fascism. Whoa. You know? [LAUGHS]

Steve Kolowich

She made the sign and went back to the plaza where Katie was.

Courtney Lawton

She was set up in this area where all of the crazy street preachers are, the Jehovah's Witnesses come. She was in that area. She was on the mall, OK? And I'm like, fair game. You're on the mall. Here we go.

And I went to stand in front of the table maybe about a meter away, walking back and forth in front of the table. And I had started chanting, "No KKK, no neo-Nazi USA."

(CHANTING) No KKK! No neo-Fascist USA! Fight white nationalism! Fight white supremacy!

Steve Kolowich

The student, Katie, was taken aback. She didn't go out that day to make a video of a snowflake. It was her first day. She says she really just wanted to sign up some students and try out her patter.

Of course, she understood this kind of thing might happen. But now she was in the middle of it, and it was kind of intense. And she was alone. And here was Courtney, treating her like some kind of race warrior.

Katie Mullen

It was humiliating. I mean, I don't think anyone wants to be associated-- well, any normal person would not want to be associated with the KKK or being racist.

Courtney Lawton

(CHANTING) No KKK! No NRA! No neo-Fascist USA! Fight white nationalism!

Katie Mullen

I mean, at first I almost laughed. It was like, oh, gosh. What's she doing? And that's when I actually first got just my Snapchat out, I mean, I Snapchat everything. She was screaming. So I just took a video. But then it started progressively getting more intense and worse. And I started getting a lot more nervous.

Dana Chivvis

When they're saying, "no KKK," and they're saying you're racist, were you like, what the hell are you talking about?

Katie Mullen

I just thought they were saying it because I was conservative. To some people who are on the way left, I would say they want to say all conservatives are racist.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney says she was using "KKK" as shorthand for "you're racist." She says Turning Point tries to provoke racial resentment in white people. And race is something they talk about a fair amount. Charlie Kirk, the founder, has called the concept of white privilege a, quote, "myth and a lie." He says it's a racist idea.

Turning Point also thinks affirmative action is racist, a point it tries to make by encouraging its campus chapters to hold affirmative action bake sales. They sell cookies to black students for $0.50. White students have to pay $2. All that, to Courtney, is KKK-ish.

Courtney Lawton

I mean, it's a loaded term, but sometimes you have to use hyperbole to get people's attention too. It's a rhetorical thing.

Steve Kolowich

I've watched this one video Katie took a bunch of times, and it always feels awkward. Usually, campus protests involve large groups of people whose chanting and sign waving makes sense because they're in a crowd.

But in Katie's video, Courtney is mostly alone. She's pacing with her sign, calling out like a carnival barker. The plaza is huge and mostly empty. Someone on a bike whizzes by, tumbleweed style. Katie walked out from behind her table to get a better shot. She starts narrating.

Katie Mullen

Tabling for Turning Point USA.

Steve Kolowich

And then Courtney starts shouting.

Courtney Lawton

Neo-fascist Becky right here. Becky the neo-fascist right here wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids.

Steve Kolowich

What's a neo-fascist Becky?

Courtney Lawton

A Becky is a white woman who weaponizes her whiteness and her white privilege.

Steve Kolowich

That's Courtney, who's a white woman, by the way. I wondered if Katie was familiar with the term.

Did you know what that was?

Katie Mullen

Yeah. I mean, I knew what it was just because it's slang, a lot of times what they call white girls, Becky. So I knew what she was getting at when she was saying that.

Steve Kolowich

What was she getting at?

Katie Mullen

Just, I guess, calling me a little white girl or whatever. She's neo-fascist Becky.

Steve Kolowich

Katie and Courtney circled each other, one woman armed with a cell phone, the other with a poster board. And then--

Courtney Lawton

I flipped her off. The minute I did it, I was like, this is the kind of thing they're looking for. This is it. In fact, I thought to myself, well, if you take a picture, it will last longer.

Steve Kolowich

You liked doing it.

Courtney Lawton

They were there to be provocative, and I'm there to answer the provocation.

Steve Kolowich

On her first day, all of these scenarios Turning Point talks about happened to Katie. Somebody had tried to kick her into a free speech zone. A triggered liberal who didn't want her kind on campus had called her names and accused her of racism. And she reacted the way Turning Point teaches its soldiers to react, by taking out her camera and filming.

Courtney knew she was playing to type, the liberal academic who cried racism. But she didn't really care. She was there to make a scene.

Dana Chivvis

Did she react at all when you flipped her off?

Courtney Lawton

She laughed. She thought it was hilarious. And she got up in my face and she started walking with me to get me, to film me and stuff. And I think at one point I told her, you might get a better shot if you turn your camera landscape and not portrait. Hot tip. [LAUGHS] I mean, I was so indignant.

Katie Mullen

She's around my mom's age, from what I heard. So it was surprising behavior coming from someone who's a lot older than me.

Dana Chivvis

What was surprising about it?

Katie Mullen

That a woman who I presumed to be a professor at the university, who's in her 40s, would act like that, I guess. And then it started getting into-- we're saying the F-word, and you racist eff, you. It's my effing First Amendment, and then now screaming at people passing by. So at this point, I stopped recording. And I called one of my friends. And I was like, I don't know what to do.

Steve Kolowich

Katie says that there were some F bombs thrown around at the protest, things like, it's my effing First Amendment or you racist eff.

Courtney Lawton

It is my effing First Amendment. It is my effing First Amendment.

Steve Kolowich

Did you say, "You racist eff?

Courtney Lawton

I don't remember saying that.

Steve Kolowich

But there were F-bombs bombs flying around?

Courtney Lawton

Oh, there were F-bombs flying around.

Steve Kolowich

Eff Charlie Kirk?

Courtney Lawton

Oh, yeah. Eff that guy.

Steve Kolowich

Things were getting ugly. Katie was feeling overwhelmed. She didn't really want to be there anymore, but she also didn't want to leave. She didn't want the liberal activist to think they'd won.

A woman walking by saw Katie surrounded by three protesters. One of them was being really aggressive. Katie looked upset. The woman, who worked for the university, mouthed the words, are you OK? Katie shook her head no. Then she started crying.

Katie Mullen

At this point, I was just a complete mess. It was-- [CHUCKLES] not the greatest situation.

Steve Kolowich

One of the other protesters was an English professor named Amanda Gailey. She wasn't chanting or swearing like Courtney. Instead, she stood off to the side and quietly held a sign that said, "Turning Point: Please put me on your watch list." It was a gesture of solidarity with the professors the group had singled out.

But when Katie got upset, Amanda decided to call a timeout.

Amanda Gailey

I thought, this is not good. We don't want people to feel like this on campus. So I rolled up my sign. And I went over and asked her if she was OK. And I told her that I wanted her to know that I was not there to protest her and I had no hard feelings towards her. I was there to protest her organization. And I said, I would like to talk to you sometime, if you're up for it, when we don't have all these people around, in a non-hostile environment. And I said, would that be OK? And she said yes.

Steve Kolowich

Katie gave Amanda a piece of paper and the professor wrote down her email address.

Dana Chivvis

Did it make you feel bad?

Amanda Gailey

Yeah. I think it did make me feel bad that she looked upset.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney felt differently.

Courtney Lawton

Oh, please. I don't care, because you've signed on with this group. If you're going to be politically active, there's no crying.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney draws a line between her identity as an activist and her identity as a teacher. She says she doesn't push her politics on her students.

Dana Chivvis

Why didn't you take that tact with Katie?

Courtney Lawton

Because I'm not her teacher and it wasn't my classroom.

Steve Kolowich

When Courtney looked at Katie sitting at her Turning Point table, she didn't see a student who wanted to sign up classmates for a club. She didn't see a student at all. She saw a professional operative from a powerful national organization that wanted to eradicate from public education the people and ideas she held dear.

Turning Point was Fox News. It was the Koch brothers. It was President Trump. This was an invasion. And the soft spoken teenager handing out "I Heart Capitalism" stickers was the tip of the spear.

The confrontation lasted about 20 minutes. Katie left the plaza, still upset. The protesters dispersed. And in another world, that would have been that. Maybe the student would have emailed the professor to clear the air. Maybe she would have lodged a complaint. Maybe an administrator or two would have gotten involved.

In any case, you and I wouldn't have heard about it. But that's not the world we live in-- at least, not anymore. Instead, the outrage machine lurched into motion. That's what people in higher education sometimes call it, the network of right-wing websites that have emerged to pounce on stories big and small about liberals behaving badly on campus. Student activists send up a bat signal so conservatives around the country can see it and come running.

That afternoon, Katie did interviews with Turning Point's news division and with Campus Reform, that news site with the student correspondents on campuses. She also tweeted her photos, including the one of Courtney giving her the middle finger. Her tweet said, quote, "Tabling for TP USA today and UNL faculty came to protest, screaming profanities. They won't silence me. I will continue to fight for freedom."

Charlie Kirk saw her video and huddled with his team. They slapped a Turning Point logo on the video and Charlie tweeted it out, with a note saying, quote, "Intolerant left strikes again."

That must have felt exciting.

Katie Mullen

I guess it was, if I look back just a year before. I was following him on Twitter. But I mean, I think it was a big deal, what did happen. I started the conversation in the state of Nebraska that this is happening here. And it's not just happening at Berkeley. It's happening in Nebraska.

Steve Kolowich

For conservatives who are anxious about campus politics, the University of California at Berkeley is Gomorrah, PC U, the bottom of the slippery slope. The University of Nebraska, on the other hand, is not typically a hotbed of political activism. There have been a couple Black Lives Matter rallies, and anti-abortion groups have marched there too. But Berkeley, it is not.

When I asked people if the student body was liberal or conservative, they usually said neither. That a lot of the kids come from conservative backgrounds, but that most aren't very political, one way or another. The protest was on a Friday. Turning Point sent up the bat signal, and by Monday, there were articles about Courtney and Amanda in the The Daily Wire, The College Fix, Gateway Pundit, and Breitbart. University administrators got messages from furious Nebraskans.

Bill Forbes

Hi, Gail. My name is Bill Forbes. I'm calling from out in Western Nebraska.

Steve Kolowich

Well, furious for Nebraska.

Bill Forbes

And I would like to recommend-- there needs to be an example, I believe, made of this professor. And I certainly would not insinuate that her livelihood should be removed from her. But I do believe that she needs to have an unpaid leave of absence. I would really appreciate hearing from you. Thank you so much, ma'am. Bye, bye.

Steve Kolowich

Others were more direct. A guy named Doug Kagan, who runs a group called Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, also wanted the university to do something about liberal bullies. And he wanted them to make some bigger changes while they were at it.

He suggested they eliminate some line items from their budget, including the women's studies program, the ethnic studies program, the LGBT programs, English as a second language, the diversity resources office, and money set aside for affirmative action. This is a good example of what can happen when Turning Point publicizes these incidents on campuses. It brings conservatives out of the woodwork with ideas about what the public universities should and shouldn't be doing.

Katie never emailed Amanda Gailey, the professor at the protest who had offered to talk. In fact, in the week after the incident when the local talk radio host asked her if any of the protesters had tried to engage in dialogue, she didn't mention the email offer. She told them, there was no dialogue. I stood there as they were hurling these insults at me. As the story was retold, Courtney's behavior on the plaza was pluralized in a way that made it sound a bit like Katie had been accosted by a mob.

Hal Daub

They were shouting at her, cussing at her, calling her names.

Steve Kolowich

This is Hal Daub, a prominent Nebraska Republican who's on the university's board of regents. He's describing the scene on local talk radio.

Hal Daub

And just really threatened her and bullied her to a point of tears. And now, she's a marked person and has, to some degree, perhaps have further safety issues because of these employees.

Steve Kolowich

Katie was no longer just a young conservative who loved America and hated big government. She's now a free speech crusader. The right has taken up free speech on campus as a rallying cry, pointing to speakers who had been shouted down or had their events canceled by universities. Katie was another conservative who had been silenced by a liberal bully.

And so, two weeks after the protest, on another sunny Friday, she returned to the plaza, this time with a giant beach ball, a free speech beach ball.

Katie Mullen

It's just promoting free speech. It's a huge beach ball. And then anyone can sign it with anything they want to say. It's actually really cool. It's really fun.

Steve Kolowich

Why a beach ball?

Katie Mullen

I think just because it's easy to sign. It's just something fun, eye catching.

Steve Kolowich

She had gotten the gigantic beach ball-- it's 12 feet in diameter-- from the Leadership Institute, the organization that runs Campus Reform. Page 39 of the Turning Point chapter handbook includes detailed instructions on how to run a free speech ball event, beginning with how to inflate the ball with an electric pump and how many people you'll need to hand out markers, take pictures, and help you roll it around campus.

Nebraska state senator Steve Halloran walked the seven blocks up from the capital to pose for a photo with Katie. By the time he arrived, the giant beach ball was covered in messages from UNL students-- fuck communists, fuck Antifa terrorists, fuck Hillary, fuck Donald Trump, fuck everyone who's funding this. The senator managed to find space for his own message-- "Thank God for our freedom of speech."

He and other senators had heard from constituents about Courtney's protest. They didn't like what they heard. Senator Tom Brewer wrote to the university president directly, quote, "This event is being watched very closely by the unicameral." In other words, we have our eye on you. Do the right thing.

The outrage machine had done its job. On Twitter, people called Courtney unstable, a loudmouth, a clown, a, quote, "tormented individual with an addiction to ignorance." 11 days after the incident, Courtney was called into a meeting with the university's executive vice chancellor, who told her that she would not be teaching anymore, at least not for the time being. Courtney wasn't being fired, the vice chancellor said, but the university was worried about her safety and the safety of her students. Courtney says the vice chancellor asked her if she would have done anything differently in retrospect. Courtney said no, no regrets.

Courtney Lawton

I think that if I had said to her, I apologize. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. This is a terrible situation. But I didn't feel that way. And I don't feel that way. And I'm not going to apologize.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney's protest on the plaza was nothing out the ordinary for her. She's an activist, mostly for gun control. And she's testified against bills in the Nebraska state capital before. It was her mother who taught her to protest. But it was her father, a conservative, who showed her how to never give an inch.

Courtney Lawton

Dad made talking politics a blood sport. It really was. I mean, we would be in the car and he would pick a topic, and we would debate it. So I was raised to do this. I was raised to talk politics. And my sister remembers it as being very abusive. She remembers it being like my father would back me into a rhetorical corner until I cried out of frustration, and then would take us out for dinner.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney says her father's politics borders on fascism. Still, she says they're very close. Inevitably, news of her protest made it to his computer screen.

Courtney Lawton

My dad found out about this on Breitbart and TheBlaze, because that's all he reads. And he called me. And he said, you know, you've always done this. You've always played with fire. And then he said, you're toxic. You're never going to get a job in academia. You probably will never be able to teach again. And I want you to know that you've done this to yourself.

Steve Kolowich

Some of Courtney's colleagues on the faculty did come to her defense. After she was removed from the classroom, about 50 of them held a small rally on campus, waving signs that said things like, "Don't gag our educators." The university had to answer publicly for what had happened. University president Hank Bounds went on a local talk radio show in Lincoln. The host, Coby Mach, speaks first.

Coby Mach

She flipped her off. Hey, listen. That's protected by free speech, I think, as well.

Hank Bounds

Doesn't make it appropriate.

Coby Mach

But she called her a neo-fascist Becky.

Hank Bounds

Yep.

Coby Mach

And she said that a couple of times. And a "Becky" is referred to as a white woman, only you substitute the woman for a rather nasty name, a white woman who performs sex acts.

Steve Kolowich

I have to say, one of the stranger outcomes of Courtney's protest was that it apparently sent the nice folks of Nebraska to UrbanDictionary.com in order to decode the meaning of "Becky." The definition that involves sex acts is not the first one listed, but it's definitely the one people gravitated toward. Courtney's rather academic definition, a white woman who weaponizes her white privilege, isn't on there at all. Regardless, the radio host thought she went too far.

Coby Mach

And some say that that goes beyond intimidation, that that even borders on hate speech. So you understand why people want to know what's happening with this person that apparently is still on staff.

Hank Bounds

So I completely understand. I have been abundantly clear that it's inappropriate. That does not meet our standard of behavior.

Coby Mach

And I think we're all glad to hear that though.

Hank Bounds

It's inappropriate.

Steve Kolowich

When President Bounds issued an official statement about the incident, he made this distinction. This wasn't about Courtney's right to free speech-- of course he supported that. No, this was about her lack of civility.

In any case, we can all agree that Courtney called Katie a mean name. And a bunch of conservatives in Nebraska were offended. Or maybe they were triggered.

There's this phrase we kept hearing while reporting this story, "Nebraska nice." It was a marketing slogan. The state tourism commission used it a few years ago. But people seem to take it seriously. It's the plastic on the couch cushions that keeps the political mud being slung across the country from leaving a stain on Nebraska.

Now, there are elements in Nebraska that threaten that niceness, that civility. After what happened to Katie, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, this guy, JL Spray, was worried about one threat in particular.

Jl Spray

There's a group called Betsy Riot that I think emanates from the faculty at the university.

Steve Kolowich

Betsy Riot is this sort of underground, punk, feminist collective whose members often conceal their identities with veils or creepy masks. They're kind of like PETA, nonviolent, but pretty in your face and willing to commit vandalism to make a point. In Nebraska, the group had posted signs comparing the Boy Scouts to Hitler Youth.

Another time, a group of Betsys wearing sunglasses and surgical masks marched at the Nebraska state capital, carrying a tube of ointment the length of a sedan with a label that read, "Preparation H for the flaming assholes in our legislature."

Jl Spray

And they threw blood on the door of a United States senator, which I think is a terroristic threat.

Steve Kolowich

The blood was fake, actually. And it was found on the doors of both Nebraska senators after they said they would vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. JL Spray thought Courtney was a member of Betsy Riot, which I told Courtney.

And he thinks that you're in Betsy Riot. And he thinks you were involved in throwing fake blood on some senators' doors. Is he right about that?

Courtney Lawton

I don't know. He can think whatever he wants.

Steve Kolowich

Are you in Betsy Riot? Is that something that you want to talk about?

Courtney Lawton

I have nothing to say about that.

Steve Kolowich

Are you a fan?

Courtney Lawton

Well, I know that Betsy Riot is an anonymous organization. And it's all over the country. They have a web page. You should totally check it out, BetsyRiot.com.

Steve Kolowich

I have checked it out. It seems like the kind of page you would like.

Courtney Lawton

Well, they're pretty badass.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney, for the first time in the many hours we talked, had little to say.

Ira Glass

Steve Kolowich. Coming up, we move from the Brawl on the Mall to round two of this fight, the Fiasca in Nebraska. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Round Two: The Fiasca in Nebraska

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "My Effing First Amendment." If you're just tuning in, to review where we are, Turning Point USA has these tools-- video trainings and free speech balls and all kinds of stuff-- that they give to students so the students can go out and collect evidence and spread the word that there is a bias against conservatives on college campuses. And also, liberals be nuts.

Katie Mullen deployed these tools in the first half of our program and started a conversation in the state of Nebraska. In the second half of the show, we see where that conversation led. The conversation is supercharged emotionally for a bunch of reasons. First off, as maybe you've noticed, everyone in America hates everyone who disagrees with them right now.

But besides that, in Nebraska, there is something else to add to the mix. This college town is a blue dot in a big red state, which happens-- I have to say-- in so many places. And yes, I'm talking to you, Austin, Texas and Athens, Georgia, and Lawrence, Kansas and so many other towns.

And when fights like this happen on campuses in these red states, the fight can move so quickly, to whether people in the state can trust the state universities. Again, here's Steve Kolowich.

Steve Kolowich

Remember earlier, when I said that Courtney saw a Turning Point as an invading force with Katie as the tip of the spear? Well, some Nebraskans saw Courtney as the tip of a different spear. They were convinced there was something far more sinister behind her protest, a shadowy force bent on destroying the Nebraska they knew. That guy, JL Spray, who thought Courtney was part of Betsy Riot, he put it well.

Jl Spray

So I have a daughter at the university. And I'm paying tuition for her to understand critical thinking, to get a liberal arts degree, to learn how to think for herself. And what they're doing to her is, well, I think what they're trying to do is de-hickify her. That's also not in the dictionary, but basically beat the hick out of her so that she's just a good little liberal like the rest of them.

Steve Kolowich

The liberal bias of faculty is something conservatives have harped on for a while, and they're not wrong. As of 2014, nationally, there are more self-identifying liberal professors than conservatives and moderates combined. And in the last few years, the percentage of Republicans who say colleges are having a negative effect on the country has increased significantly to 58%.

Katie became a source for Nebraskans who wanted to know exactly what was going on in the hallways at their state university. And where she decided to go next was probably the most liberal hallway of the most liberal building in one of the most liberal counties in Nebraska. In October, the chancellor told her that what Courtney did was an isolated incident and she wouldn't be formally disciplined.

After that meeting, Katie started tweeting about the pattern of liberalism that she saw infecting the entire English department, Courtney and Amanda's academic home. She tweeted about signs on the English department building that said "No wall," "No ban," and "Resist." "Is this in a free speech zone?" she asked her followers.

She tweeted about the department's mission statement and its core values, which include, quote, "affirming diversity and pursuing social justice." "Are they teaching English or teaching students to be social justice warriors?" Katie tweeted. People noticed. Campus Reform wrote about the English department. And in Omaha, Chris Baker, a conservative radio host, also picked up on the story.

Chris Baker

If you go to Andrews Hall-- you know, Andrews Hall, a historic building there at the University of Nebraska. It houses the English department, other such things. And if you look at the photos on my blog, it looks like-- it appears that various administrators and grad assistants--

Courtney Lawton

Neo-fascist Becky right here.

Chris Baker

--are decorating their windows with all kinds of communist propaganda such as "Resist." I love these people. They're resisting. What are you resisting? I'm telling you, man, that must be one of the most exciting, bedwetting drum circles where they come up with this crap. All right?

I know that some are going to say, oh, Chris, it's a First Amendment right. No, it's not. You have a First Amendment right on your own time. You don't have a First Amendment right when you're working for me, the taxpayer.

Steve Kolowich

He's wrong, by the way. All Americans have a First Amendment right, even the ones who work for Chris Baker. A public university can't tell its employees not to express personal political viewpoints. It can make certain rules about how to express those views. They can put reasonable limits on where you can hang a banner. But those rules can't be based on what the banner says. Teachers don't give up their First Amendment rights when they take the job.

President Hank Bounds went on the radio and defended the English department. He said diversity is something a university should strive for. But Katie kept her eyes peeled for evidence of liberalism in the English department.

A few months later, she took a picture of a sign that listed a bunch of different minority groups. It said, "Students of color, you are welcome here. Queer students, non-neurotypical students, Muslim and non-Christian students, you are welcome here." In the bottom left-hand corner of the sign was a woman's torso made of letters which spell, "My body, my business, motherfucker."

Katie Mullen

At the bottom where it said, my body, my business, mother-effer, I think that caught my eye a lot too, just the foul language of it. And just, I think, what else-- the fact it said Muslim, non-Christian. It specified non-Christian students. I mean, I can understand where it's coming from. And I totally agree that this place should be-- all are welcome here. But it did leave out some Christian white males. It was just kind of like, is this appropriate?

Steve Kolowich

It strikes me that what you're doing in the English department is to police what people in the English department say, at least in posters.

Katie Mullen

That's utterly wrong.

Steve Kolowich

Why is that wrong?

Katie Mullen

I'm not policing their thoughts. I'm not policing what they say. I just don't find it appropriate to have foul language up at their place of work, my place of schooling. I mean, so many students are going through school, don't really know where they stand, don't really know what they believe in. It's important that we're not spewing out this, I guess, hate almost towards Republicans and the other side.

Steve Kolowich

Katie was offended by the effing poster and she worried that the English department was giving itself an unfair advantage in the battle for the minds of UNL's impressionable young students. Her new friends, the state senators, agreed. Senator Tom Brewer believed that the University of Nebraska should, quote, "reflect and respect the beliefs and values of all Nebraskans."

Senator Steve Halloran started working on a bill that would require the university to punish protesters who drown out free speech on campus, with harsher penalties for repeat offenders. If the bill passed, the university would have to create something called a Committee on Free Expression. Essentially, the committee would do what Turning Point did, report out any incidents where free speech was stepped on by anyone else in an annual summary for the governor and the legislature.

Senator Halloran invited Katie Mullen to weigh in, telling a local newspaper that she met with his staff at least a dozen times to talk about it. In January, there was a hearing on the bill. A bunch of people showed up to testify against it, including professors from UNL. Many testified that it would have a chilling effect on free speech at the school. Some alleged that the senators were trying to crack down on the speech of liberal faculty members.

One law professor said the bill was alarmingly vague. He worried that it could lead to the government influencing what teachers discuss in the classroom. And weirdly, that fear sort of came true right there in the hearing room. Senator Mike Groene, the chair of the education committee, questioned some of the UNL faculty members about the politics of the English department. Amanda Gailey was one of them.

Mike Groene

Well, I will give you a chance, because it's out there about the website for the university.

Amanda Gailey

It's out there?

Mike Groene

On the English department. And it's got very little to do with Shakespeare or Chauncey or any of those people.

Amanda Gailey

Have you looked at our course catalog, sir?

Mike Groene

Oh, I was just talking about--

Amanda Gailey

Do you realize that a class on Shakespeare is taught, I believe, every semester in our department? And that when I listened to inexpert outsiders criticizing our curriculum for teaching social justice issues last fall, I was in the middle of teaching T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson in my courses. Because the people leading this attack have absolutely no interest in--

Steve Kolowich

Courtney watched from the front row while Amanda defended the English department at this hearing that was supposed to be about free speech.

Courtney Lawton

Shakespeare and Chauncey, stupid.

Steve Kolowich

Free speech is supposed to be one of the few remaining ideas in American politics that everyone can agree on. But free speech doesn't solve political conflicts. It creates them. Solving them requires more advanced tools like trust, humility, dialogue, listening. A law professor testified that the free speech bill was unconstitutional. And at the end of the day, it didn't make it out of committee.

But the idea of the bill, that there needs to be oversight over how public universities deal with speech, has taken hold around the country. Similar bills have been proposed in a lot of states-- Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, others too, all based on the same script developed by a conservative think tank called the Goldwater Institute. But political pressure does count for something. And before it was all over, the conservatives would win a significant victory against the university.

In the fall, Courtney was called into a meeting in the chancellor's office.

Chancellor Green

Morning, Courtney.

Courtney Lawton

Morning.

Chancellor Green

How are you?

Courtney Lawton

Fine, thank you. How are you doing, chancellor?

Steve Kolowich

Courtney secretly recorded it. During the meeting, Chancellor Green showed her security camera footage that captured her protest. He acknowledged that the protest went down exactly as Courtney had described. Then he made a confession of sorts.

Chancellor Green

I will not hide the fact, nor is there reason to hide the fact, that there was tremendous political pressure through this. As there was, and you saw it. There were political figures that were weighing in on this all the way to DC.

Steve Kolowich

Still, he was hopeful that Courtney would be able to return quietly to the classroom for the spring semester. But then something else came up that put the university back on the defensive. The conservative press had gotten ahold of some emails sent between university officials in the wake of the Katie Mullen incident.

One retired administrator wrote, quote, "I don't think it's safe to be conservative on our campus. Too many faculty espouse their personal political views as gospel in classrooms where their views have no relevance." The university worried this would look like a smoking gun, proof that they were trying to de-hickify the students.

To get ahead of that potential scandal, President Bounds shared the email with every state senator and the governor, along with an apology and a pledge to study the political climate on campus. And Chancellor Green called Courtney back into his office.

Chancellor Green

Thank you for coming in on very short notice. The disruption this continues to cause to our campus, that traces back to this incident, is significant. It is not going away. I mean, it's getting worse. We can't put you back in the classroom.

Steve Kolowich

He assured Courtney that the decision had nothing to do with her scholarship or her teaching ability. She had gotten great reviews from her students. This was just politics.

Chancellor Green

This is purely about that we are very concerned, if we put you back in the classroom, we're going to continue to suffer damage. I just have to be honest with you. And it traces back to the incident and the behavior in the incident.

And we can't put it to bed. We just can't. We've tried. We tried every way we know how to address it. We think we have addressed it. We think we have appropriately addressed it. But it will not go away.

We're in an environment that none of us have ever been in before. And I mean that broadly, but also I mean it academically. I mean, we're in a time that we've never been in before, in our lifetimes.

Steve Kolowich

How did you feel when you left that meeting?

Courtney Lawton

[CHUCKLES] Like I had been fired.

Steve Kolowich

Courtney wasn't technically fired. She was reassigned to non-teaching work for the spring, with pay, like a problem cop sent to desk duty. Chancellor Green told us the official reason was, quote, "potential disruption to the academic environment." He was scared her classroom might become a target for political agitators who wanted to keep the fight going.

Dana Chivvis

What was the hardest part for you about not being able to teach?

Courtney Lawton

I just really like my students. I like what I do. And it bothers me that I'll never probably be able to do it again. I am afraid of that. It's a big part of my identity, you know? And it really bothers me that I'm not in the classroom anymore because of these jerks, because their goal is to remove people like me from the classroom.

Steve Kolowich

The conservatives of Nebraska couldn't purge the English department of liberals, but they'd shown the university who is in charge. Courtney was gone from the classroom. It wasn't really the university's decision. It was theirs.

Joe Walsh

Where's Katie Mullen?

[CHEERING]

Come here, girl. Stand up, girl.

Steve Kolowich

A month later, at the Turning Point conference you heard about at the top of the show, the one down the road from Mar-a-Lago, Joe Walsh, a conservative radio personality, was giving a talk in front of a few thousand conservative students. And he asked Katie to stand up and take credit for her great work that semester.

Joe Walsh

20-year-old Katie Mullen from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln turns 20 years old today, baby.

[CHEERING]

Hey! And again-- guys, I don't want to get in trouble. I know we live in a time when everybody's harassing everybody. But guys, she'd be a great catch.

[CHEERING]

She's adorable and she's a hardcore conservative, baby. She is a freedom fighter.

[CHEERING]

Hey! God bless you. Every day, grab your musket and go to war. Every day, grab your musket and fight for freedom and limited government. It's your fight. It's your battle. God bless you. Thank you, everybody.

[CHEERING]

Steve Kolowich

I want to tell you about one other thing that was happening on the UNL campus this year. At the beginning of the spring semester, a Nebraska anti-fascist group posted a video online of a guy named Daniel Kleve, a white supremacist discussing white supremacy with some other guys online.

Daniel Kleve

Trust me, I want to be violent. Trust me, really violent. But now is not the time.

Steve Kolowich

It turns out Daniel Kleve is also an undergraduate student at UNL.

Daniel Kleve

Just because I dress like a normie or whatever, a presentable person, doesn't mean that I don't train for boxing. It doesn't mean that I don't lift weights. It doesn't mean that I don't love violence, right? You don't have to look like a violent person to be violent.

Steve Kolowich

When the Kleve video went public, lots of people on campus were upset and scared. A few hundred students, faculty, and staff gathered on the plaza in front of the student union for an anti-hate rally. Members of the basketball team took warm-ups and t-shirts that said, "Hate will never win."

Some people called for the university to expel Kleve. The administrators said they weren't going to. He hadn't made any specific threats, and even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. The university police force had done a threat assessment and decided that despite what he said in the video, he wasn't going to commit violence at UNL. There was no safety issue.

Meanwhile, when Courtney Lawton was first removed from the classroom, the university said it was because they were worried about safety for her and her students. Some people say it was hypocritical to allow a violence-loving white supremacist to keep going to class, when they had so quickly ousted Courtney Lawton for flipping the bird and calling a student "Becky."

Michael Combs

African American faculty and staff and students and others-- Jews as well-- those persons were not valued as much as the situation with the student in August. There is a greater emphasis upon the welfare of white students.

Steve Kolowich

This is Michael Combs, a professor of political science. He's been at the university for more than 30 years. In February, the administration held a series of meetings where students and faculty could speak their minds about everything that had happened. Michael Combs talked about his fear, while Chancellor Green listened.

Michael Combs

I have never been afraid in a classroom. On Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, when my class was over, I looked around and I see it. There is a white supremacist on campus. I need to get my black handsome self out of this classroom.

[LAUGHTER]

I have never felt that. I am from Louisiana. I have lived with white supremacists and they mean business. And I guess I'm bothered by this notion that I'm safe because you say I'm safe. I have to feel I'm safe. You have to convince me that I am safe on this campus.

[APPLAUSE]

Steve Kolowich

Everybody wants to feel safe at the University of Nebraska. Michael Combs wants to feel safe from violent white supremacists. Courtney wants to feel safe from right-wing state senators. Katie wants to feel safe from radical liberal professors. They were all free to speak up about their fears, and they all did. But only one of them had powerful people in Nebraska come to her aid. Speaking isn't the same as being heard.

Ira Glass

Steve Kolowich is a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We collaborated on today's story with The Chronicle. You can read the utterly superb print version that Steve Kolowich did at chronicle.com.

[MUSIC - JAMES BROWN, "TALKING LOUD AND SAYING NOTHING"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Diane Wu and our senior producer, Brian Reed. Dana Chivvis produced our story from Nebraska. Our staff includes Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Stowe Nelson, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

Special thanks today to Brock Read at The Chronicle for Higher Education, Brian Bernys, Lawrence Jones, Hannah Scherlacher, Kelefa Sanneh, Ari Cohn, Daniel Burnett, Spencer Brown, Ben Terris, Alex Abdul, Kassy Dillon, Daniel Weldon, Madison Dibble, Chris Dunker, Joel Patrick, and Emma Doyle. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He knows what a horse eats.

Joe Walsh

Hey!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

LYRICS: (SINGING) Just talking loud and saying nothing. Just saying nothing. Just saying nothing. Shape up your bag. Don't worry about mine. My thing is together and doing fine. Good luck to you.

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