College campuses across the country are wrestling over the limits of free speech in a politically divisive era. Conservative author Ben Shapiro’s lecture on Wednesday will test the University of Utah’s own reputation as a place where diverse points of view are welcome.
You might’ve heard of Ben Shapiro even if you don’t know his face or his voice. He runs the conservative website The Daily Wire and is a former editor of Breitbart News.
He frequently goes after what he describes as the left’s victim complex and liberal hostility to conservative ideas on college campuses - like he did during his most recent speech at Berkeley on Sept. 14.
“The more victimized you are, the more legitimate your views are," he said. "So, the hierarchy goes something like this – the people whose views are most valuable and have been the most victimized. At the very top are LGBT, and then you get black people, and then you get women, and then you get Hispanic people….”
You get the idea. It’s provocative. And it’s a message that University of Utah junior Dillon Clark says more of his classmates need to hear, even if they disagree with it.
“If you hear the same opinion for four years and you go out into the real world and you hear a differing opinion, your first move is to shutter away and protest it," he says. "...It’s just not the way the world works.”
Clark was a freshman at the U when he first discovered Shapiro’s writing.
“Ben Shapiro is the guy who got me into the whole political realm. …I started watching him on YouTube.”
As Clark was watching these videos, he noticed a small logo for YAF, which stands for Young Americans for Freedom. It’s a well-funded activist organization for college-aged libertarians and conservatives.
Clark decided to start his own chapter nine months ago. Now, he’s finally going to meet Shapiro, his conservative idol, who’ll deliver a lecture tomorrow night called "Trigger Warnings." The national YAF foots the bill for these kind of talks, though Clark wouldn’t say how much it’s going to cost.
Of course, Shapiro’s appearance has prompted pushback. Students held a sit-in outside President David Pershing’s office this month. They wanted him to cancel the speech, but Pershing declined. In an open letter to campus, Pershing said the U, as a public university, had an obligation to permit free expression.
Administrators have been quick to note that it’s the YAF sponsoring the lecture. The U is merely providing a space for him, as they would for any other legitimate student group.
But is hosting Shapiro the same as condoning him?
“You could make that argument," says Chris Nelson, the U's director of communications. "I don’t think that’s the right argument in this case to make.
“I think many on campus find Mr. Shapiro’s views distasteful, they disagree with it, but I think ...the best way to combat speech you disagree with is more speech," he says.
He and other top U officials actually traveled to Berkeley a week and a half ago to observe how the campus handled protests surrounding Shapiro’s visit.
About nine people were arrested and Berkley dropped over half a million dollars on security. Nelson doesn’t expect a bill nearly that high, but they’re still finalizing logistics.
“I think what we don’t want to be is under-prepared, and we also don’t want to look like a police state," he says. "That’s what Berkley felt like, to be honest with you, to see that many police officers in full riot gear. I don’t think this campus is ready for that; I don’t think it’s needed.”
Nelson says he hopes students who object to Shapiro will recognize they can still be passionate, still protest, so long as they keep it peaceful.
And isn’t intellectual discomfort kind of the point of college? That’s what David Virgobbi, a professor of communication at the U, thinks. He teaches a freedom of expression class and says many students have a poor grasp of the First Amendment.
“What many people don’t seem to understand is that something like hate speech is, in fact, protected under the First Amendment,” he says.
He cites a recent study from a UCLA professor that shows college students have an increasingly hostile view toward speech they disagree with, a trend that concerns him.
“Especially in a university, in my mind, it should be welcoming to all forms," he says. "It should not be a place that protects students from viewpoints that they might disagree with or might anger them or might upset them or might hurt them.”
Dillon Clark is less generous. He calls his generation “coddled.”
For him, the lecture presents an opportunity not just to raise his group’s profile but generate real discussion around the conservative agenda. He says if it goes well, he hopes to bring even more button-pushing speakers to the U.
Listen to Doug Fabrizio's conversation with Ben Shapiro on RadioWest: