Multiple fights broke out during protests outside of a Ben Shapiro speaking event at the University of Utah on Wednesday, resulting in one person being booked into jail on suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct.
U Police Chief Dale Brophy said he estimated about 300 people were outside the auditorium protesting, both opposing and in support of the conservative radio host and founder of The Daily Wire.
“As a university, we think this is what free speech looks like on a university campus,” said U spokesperson Chris Nelson.
Protests organized by at least three groups, including Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Democratic Socialists of America, combined in front of the Park Building. These groups took issue with Shapiro’s beliefs and the topic of his speech, titled “Trigger Warning,” which the Facebook event page said would “take on leftist myths of white privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions and diversity.” Earlier this month, a group of students gathered in front of U President David Pershing’s office to call on the university to cancel the event.
“We stand in solidarity with the people Ben Shapiro will verbally attack tonight,” said an SDS member opening the rally.
As those protesting Shapiro spoke to the crowd, counter-protesters gathered behind them chanting, “All lives matter!” and “Free speech matters!” Much of the debate between demonstrators and Shapiro’s supporters centered around the free speech, and whether what protesters classified as hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
“There is nothing more hypocritical than saying ‘Don’t shut down the speech of Ben Shapiro, but we’re going to shut down your speech because we’re hypocrites,’” said Lex Scott of BLM. “This is Trump’s America.”
Natalie Pinkney, a member of BLM and a recent U graduate, said that although Shapiro and other conservatives advocate for free speech, they often deny it to people of color. She referred to recent debates over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and right-wing reactions to former President Barack Obama’s election.
“We’re here because black lives have never mattered,” Pinkney said. “Where’s our liberty? When have we had the ability to have freedom of speech?”
Shapiro is known for his motto, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Pinkney said, however, that she believes he doesn’t have his facts straight when it comes to the experiences of people of color.
“I think Ben Shapiro really tells this story about what it means to be a person of color and talks about evidence, but ignores all the evidence that’s out there. I think it’s important to show up and say there is evidence, there is another part of the story.”
After listening to several speakers, approximately 200 protesters marched toward the Social and Behavioral Science Building Auditorium, where the speech was being held, as counter-protesters walked in front of the group. Police stood at the wings while security donning orange vests organized by SDS flanked the sides of marchers.
Tim Connolly, a Shapiro supporter and U student, said one protester shoved him and tore his sign, which said “Safe spaces are for children.”
“I support the idea that everyone should be allowed to speak no matter how offensive the opinion is as long as it isn’t a call to violence,” Connolly said. “Some of his opinions I agree with, some of them I don’t.”
As protesters arrived at the auditorium, police had set up barriers and stationed security around the building. About 100 Shapiro supporters were waiting, and began challenging demonstrators’ chants.
They yelled back and forth, saying “All lives matter!” and “Black lives matter!” as the latter group took a knee paying homage to protesting NFL players.
Tension rose when one white counter-protester, who said he was a student at the U, called Asian protester and U student Sara Kang an “egg roll.”
“That’s hate speech,” Kang said, as she broke down into tears.
Many Shapiro supporters and protesters separated into smaller groups — some found common ground in conversation, while others engaged in contentious arguments.
Some of the debates escalated into physical confrontations, which led to police detaining three individuals and taking one into custody. Another person who wasn’t involved in the scuffles was cited with disorderly conduct.
Officers from multiple departments helped with security at the event, including the U’s Police Department, Cottonwood Heights Police Department and West Jordan Police Department, along with assistance from the Utah Highway Patrol and federal law enforcement.
“Our stated goal tonight was to provide a safe campus for everyone here,” said Nelson. “We scaled it to the degree we thought was appropriate.”
Read our coverage of Shapiro’s speech here.