H2H: How Should the U Respond to Planned Ben Shapiro Event

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By Nicholas Coleman and Connor Richards

The U Should Protect Free Speech

Nicholas Coleman

The nation is focused on the University of Utah, as Ben Shapiro will soon appear on campus. Hosted by the University’s Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) Chapter, Shapiro’s upcoming appearance has already affected discourse on campus. Those who ordinarily avoid speaking about politics are suddenly reflecting on their values, questioning how the First Amendment right to free speech applies to controversial figures. These uncensored discussions led to the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) demanding that the speech on Sept. 27 be cancelled. President David G. Pershing, responding to these requests, announced that the event will continue as scheduled.   

Last week, UC Berkeley braced as ‘Hurricane Shapiro’ arrived on campus. The university reportedly paid local authorities $600,000 for event security — a ludicrous sum for a single evening. The Salt Lake City Police Department attended the event, observing how violence was prevented. Although protesters did emerge, there was little else done to prevent the speech. Unfortunately, life near UC Berkeley was put on hold as police barricaded streets and established checkpoints. The campus transformed overnight, thus resembling a town in the pathway of a storm. For comparison, Shapiro’s speech at UC Berkeley lasted roughly two hours — preparing for the event took hundreds of hours to ensure safety. Is this how free speech in the United States should operate?

I spoke with the Chair of YAF, Dillon Clark, about the upcoming event on Sept. 27. Glancing at any of the protest pages on Facebook, one imagines that Clark is surely bent on disrupting the status quo. That characterization could not be further from the truth. Responding to the recent criticism, Clark told me, “When you listen to people you disagree with you can gain a better understanding of their argument, why they think that way, how they came to that conclusion.” He continued by stating, “…If you can do that, not only can you broaden your overall understanding of a subject, but you can adopt new views or harden your own…” Disagreeing with his interpretation is rather difficult, as Shapiro’s entire career is focused on education and lively discussion.

Shapiro is a Harvard Law alumnus with significant intellectual prowess. His speech at the U will be brimming with statistics, and those who disagree with Shapiro can skip to the front of the Q&A line. As Clark told me earlier this week, “[Ben Shapiro] is popular for a reason, and people need to interact and engage with speakers like Ben to gain a better understanding of why and how people like him so much.”

Those requesting that Pershing cancel Shapiro’s speech center their argument around the term “hate speech.” Alternatively, his opinions do not align with the progressive movement and are therefore harmful. The political firebrand is admittedly not an admirer of the LGBTQIA movement; indeed, many of Shapiro’s comments severely aggravate leftists for this reason alone. Notice how I did not say “liberals,” as Democrats traditionally admire free speech. I wrote “leftists” to acknowledge social justice activists such as Lex Scott, founder of the United Front Party, who want to dismantle open dialogue. 

The movement that Scott and others represent in Utah has evoked a resistance to controversial ideas, evident in the title of the protest organized against Shapiro. “Counter-Protest to the hate speech of Ben Shapiro at the U,” reads the Facebook group’s heading. Wait, counter-protest to what, exactly? Shapiro might be controversial, but his appearances are guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Furthermore, the event is being hosted by a reputable organization and the University is aware of all details. Terming Shapiro’s educated rhetoric as a “protest” reveals a lack of understanding for how free speech operates.

There are limitations to the First Amendment, but Shapiro is neither preaching violence nor chaos—conservative speakers should not be viewed as counter-culture. No one is forcing the audience to attend and, if anything, disruptive protests actually attract more people to the venue. Instead of asking President Pershing to cancel Shapiro, groups like MEChA, SDS and Lex Scott should establish their own speeches. On Sept. 27, 2017, at 7 p.m., you have a choice: either attend the speech or choose to stay at home. Either way, Shapiro is coming to the U, thanks to Clark and a few others who recognize the value of free speech.

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Don’t Give Hate a Platform

Connor Richards

The normal quietness and lack of action that defines the University of Utah’s Park Building was absent on the afternoon of Sept. 12. It was replaced by the voices, yells and drum-bangs of about 50 U students who took part in a sit-in outside President David W. Pershing’s office. The protest, which was organized by the U’s chapter of Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA) and supported by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Student-Union, was against conservative commentator Ben Shapiro who will be speaking at the U on Sept. 27. Armed with harmonious chants and the synchronized beating of bass drums, the students demanded President Pershing cancel Shapiro’s talk.

Pershing, before being escorted out of the building by three police officers and a campus official, came out of his office to listen to the concerns of students. He said that while the university has a strong commitment to diversity, it is out of the university’s control to cancel a speaker invited by a student group (Shapiro was invited by the U’s chapter of Young Republicans). “The policy of the university is that a fully-registered student group has the right, just like you [the protesters] do, to invite speakers,” Pershing said, according to The Daily Utah Chronicle. “The jurisdiction we have is safety.”

The protest created outrage among the Utah community and led to accusations that the protesters are intolerant of conservative ideas and voices. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When Mitt Romney spoke at Kingsbury Hall in March 2016, there was no organized opposition by left-wing groups. Similarly, no leftists organizations attempted to cancel the conservative-leaning Evan McMullin’s speech when he made a presidential campaign stop at the U. With both of these recent instances in mind, it seems inaccurate to accuse U students of wanting to shut down conservative ideas, values and voices.

But Shapiro is not Mitt Romney or Evan McMullin. It isn’t Shapiro’s conservative tendencies that leftist students groups are hostile towards — it is his hateful and degrading comments towards minority groups. Shapiro consistently labels transgenderism as a mental illness and refers sex reassignment surgery as self-mutilation. He has repeatedly misgendered Caitlyn Jenner and scoffed at the idea that it takes any bravery to come out as transgender. When one student called him out for his insensitive rhetoric, Shapiro asked, “If I call you a moose, are you suddenly a moose?”

Shapiro is a coward. Rather than own and embrace his all too apparent disgust for transgender people, he hides it behind a poorly constructed veil of objectivity, using outdated psychology research on “gender dysphoria” to promote what is nothing more than hatred for people who are different from him. Shapiro’s catchphrase is “facts don’t care about your feelings,” as if he held his opinions on any intellectual grounds and not on outright prejudice.

The debate as to whether the U should host Shapiro centers around the idea the universities should be welcoming of all opinions, and that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects Shapiro’s right to speak. The idea that universities must allow all invited speakers, whatever their beliefs, to speak on campus is a nonsensical one. Universities exist to promote and harbor productive intellectual ideas, not to offer a free-for-all forum where all ideas, however out of whack, are treated as equally valuable. There is a reason universities do not offer courses in alchemy and astrology; these ideas have little intellectual merit.

Allowing Shapiro to speak simply because he was invited sets a dangerous precedent for what kind of speech can be promoted on the U campus. What if a student group invites a speaker who believes Sandy Hook was staged by the Obama administration, or that the Holocaust never happened, or that vaccinations cause autism? Should the U feel obligated to gives these ideas I platform? No, and it would be dangerously irresponsible to do so.

Controversial figures have been uninvited from the U before. In 2015, the rapper Asher Roth was invited by ASUU to headline the U’s annual Redfest to kick off the school year. ASUU revoked the invitation, however, after concerns were raised that the rapper’s lyrics “contradicted ASUU’s efforts to improve the campus climate.”

If a musician’s lyrics can be so disruptive to campus climate as to justify the cancellation of their performance, the same can certainly be said of Shapiro’s comments towards transgender people. It is high time colleges stopped providing hate with a platform and instead recognized that not all ideas deserve to be taken seriously in a university setting.

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