The barricades were in place outside Anderson Hall, and a half-dozen police officers stood guard inside long before the guest speaker arrived.
Charlie Kirk, a 24-year-old conservative firebrand, was bringing his pro-capitalism, small-government message to the University of Minnesota on Dec. 5. And he clearly was expecting some blowback.
“Tonight I will be smashing socialism at the University of Minnesota!” Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, tweeted that morning. “Protests expected from the intolerant campus left. Will be fun!”
As it turned out, the protests — on one of the most frigid nights of the season — never materialized. But to Kirk’s fans, it’s a sign of the times that, in 2017, they could need police protection to bring a conservative speaker to campus.
“Here’s a guy who comes in and says free enterprise is better than communism and the United States is a great country, and he’s so controversial he requires armed guards on campus,” said John Hinderaker, president of the Center of the American Experiment, who attended Kirk’s speech. “We really have reached a point of insanity.”
So far, Minnesota has largely escaped the kind of violence that has erupted elsewhere over campus visits by right-wing pundits and provocateurs. Yet in many ways, college campuses are turning more hostile than ever to conservative views, said Madison Faupel, president of Minnesota College Republicans.
Faupel, a 22-year-old U student from Rochester, said she and others have been threatened with violence and trashed on social media for going against the prevailing political winds on campus. She argues that opponents are using fear and intimidation to silence views they don’t agree with. “Free speech is being shut down on college campuses around the country,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
On Oct. 25, Faupel found herself sneaking out the back door of Anderson Hall to avoid a raucous crowd protesting Lauren Southern, another conservative activist who was speaking on campus that night. Faupel said she expected protests against Southern, a 22-year-old author and YouTube star known for her anti-immigrant rhetoric (her book is titled “Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants and Islam Screwed My Generation”).
Still, said Faupel, “I didn’t expect it would be that big, and I didn’t expect it would be that violent.”
Eventually, police used a chemical spray to break up the demonstration and advised Faupel and her friends to leave as inconspicuously as possible. “Everyone went out the back door,” she said. “We just took off running down Washington Avenue.”
Even so, she said she’s determined to keep bringing conservative speakers to the U. Already, her group is making plans to host Ben Shapiro, a columnist and rising star in conservative circles, in February. Three years ago, she noted, Shapiro caused little stir when he spoke at the U. Now, she predicts, “I think all hell is going to break loose.”
Protesters and their supporters say they have good reason to direct their outrage at conservative speakers. “The First Amendment protects people from the government censoring. It doesn’t mean they can’t be held accountable for their dumb ideas,” said Marty Branyon, 22, a U graduate student and member of Students for a Democratic Society.
It’s fair game to bar speakers who spout “hateful and, in a lot of cases, violent ideas,” he said, because they empower groups like white supremacists and neo-Nazis, he said. “You can talk as much as you want about having free speech or whatever,” he added, “but at some point, the people who are perpetrating this xenophobic violence in our community need to be confronted.”
He scoffed at the idea that “conservative voices are somehow silenced on campus.”
Renoir Gaither, a U library assistant and graduate student who joined in the Southern protest, agreed. “I think the majority of protesters were hoping to send a message,” he said. “The message is that we, the protesters, are diametrically opposed to the alt-right ideology.”
But Madison Dibble, vice president of the U’s College Republicans, said protesters have a dangerous habit of trying to paint all conservatives as extremists. “I think it’s a shame that it’s happening, because I think the alt-right is a horrible organization,” she said. “These people will label you without any evidence.”
To Faupel, it’s just another tactic for silencing dissent. “This term ‘hate speech’ gets thrown at us all the time,” she said. “I think that what they regard as hate speech are things that they don’t agree with.”
University officials say that they’re sensitive to concerns on both sides and that they’re doing their best to ensure that speakers have their say and protesters have the right to protest.
The U in the middle
That’s why the U takes extra precautions at events like the Kirk speech, said Vice President Mike Berthelsen.
“We’re paying attention mostly to the safety, security of our students, regardless of what the event is,” he said. At the same time, he added, “the university is not going to be a place where people are allowed to shout down and stop other speakers.”
More speeches, of course, may bring more protests. But Dibble, for one, welcomes that. “It’s important to hold our events anyway to show we won’t be intimidated,” she said.
“We need free speech on campus. It’s vital for both sides.”