University of Minnesota officials on Friday denied claims that they were suppressing conservative speech by relegating firebrand columnist Ben Shapiro’s upcoming lecture to the St. Paul campus and disputed allegations that the school operates under a political double standard.
Organizers of Shapiro’s Feb. 26 talk blasted the U this week after their requests to reserve a large venue on the West Bank campus, such as those used by former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were denied. Critics accused U officials of “exiling” Shapiro’s lecture to the St. Paul Student Center.
At an impromptu news conference, Vice President of University Relations Matt Kramer defended the decision and reaffirmed the U’s commitment to free speech.
“It is integral to who we are as a higher education institution to make sure that any speaker — of any ideological bend — is allowed to speak on campus,” Kramer said. “Security and safety is our priority, along with making sure everyone has a voice.”
The U denied Shapiro access to the Ted Mann Concert Hall and Willey Hall, two large West Bank auditoriums, because of scheduling conflicts and security concerns, Kramer said. He pointed to a stack of e-mails between U officials and conservative campus activists as proof that administrators had worked to accommodate the groups.
Minnesota has been largely spared the kind of violence that has erupted elsewhere over campus visits by right-wing pundits and provocateurs. But college campuses are turning more hostile in many ways to conservative ideas, said Madison Dibble, president of Students for a Conservative Voice at the U.
Dibble, 21, said she and others have been trashed on social media for voicing their beliefs. She said that the U has shown a bias toward liberal groups by making it easier for them to bring speakers to campus.
“There’s an entirely different process for conservatives trying to plan events,” she said.
Providing so-called safe spaces for students who oppose conservative speakers only makes things worse, Dibble said. The message, she said, is “that our words and ideas harm people.”
Conservative speakers Charlie Kirk and Lauren Southern enlisted police protection to ensure their safety at their recent talks at Anderson Hall on the West Bank. Demonstrations outside Southern’s Oct. 25 speech prompted authorities to use chemical spray and sneak some ticket-holders out the back door.
Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who is now editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion website, likely will face a similar welcome. He wrote a 2004 book titled “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.”
Rebecca Price, a 20-year-old U junior from Chicago, said she welcomes opposing viewpoints on campus but considers Shapiro’s rhetoric to be hate speech.
“If he were a regular ol’ Republican, it would be fine,” said Price, a self-described independent. “But allowing someone as extreme and discriminatory to speak sends out the message that it’s acceptable.”
At least 28 University of Minnesota police officers will provide security for the event, said Lt. Troy Buhta. Only ticket-holders for the speech will be allowed to enter the St. Paul Student Center, where the auditorium seats about 500.
Earlier Friday, state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, and Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said they plan to introduce a bill this session to help “preserve political impartiality” and freedom of expression at universities.
The bill would require state-run colleges like the U to adopt a policy affirming the principles of free speech and clearly define student-on-student harassment.
“Minnesota’s universities are where young minds search for truth, but that search requires consideration and exploration of diverse viewpoints. Students must be able to express themselves without the fear of harassment or retaliation,” Nelson said.
University officials declined to comment on the proposed legislation.