University of Utah administrators are working to get ahead of a potential clash on their campus when conservative commentator and writer Ben Shapiro speaks in Salt Lake City later this month.
Left-leaning campus groups at the U. have already called for the Sept. 27 event’s cancellation — holding a sit-in this week at U. President David Pershing’s office — followed by a string of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations announced on social media, both in support of and in opposition to Shapiro’s appearance.
That rising tension also prompted a group of seven U. representatives — including campus police — to visit the University of California, Berkeley on Thursday to observe that school’s response to a similar event featuring Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News.
“We‘re still kind of early in the logistics planning,” U. spokesman Chris Nelson said. “What we’re learning from Berkeley is that they’re trying to prevent violence before it comes to campus.”
Nelson said there have been discussions with U. departments interested in counter-programming, such as hosting events featuring poets and community activists or staging an organized protest on the same evening as Shapiro’s speech.
Calls for the event’s cancellation are complicated, Nelson said, by the fact that student group Young Americans for Freedom, and not the university itself, has invited Shapiro to Salt Lake City.
“It‘s not a university-sponsored event,” Nelson said, “but it’s a university-hosted event.”
The brewing storm was also referenced in a special newsletter sent Thursday to U. faculty, students and staff, which included segments on free speech, inclusion, white privilege and “Hate in America.”
The newsletter emphasizes the U.’s zero-tolerance policy toward violence, and states that classes near the Behavioral Sciences Auditorium where Shapiro is scheduled to speak will be relocated on the day of the event.
In a message for the newsletter, Pershing wrote that university campuses are places for free expression. But he added that a trend of hateful and hurtful language has pushed the nation beyond intellectual disagreement.
“When hearing or seeing things of this sort, I, like you, am angered,” Pershing wrote. “I am outraged. I am appalled.”
Shapiro is the author of several books, including “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America‘s Youth.” His campus speeches are sponsored by Young America’s Foundation, the parent organization over campus Young Americans for Freedom chapters.
The campus event is titled “Trigger Warning,” a nod to campus political correctness efforts that seek to alert individuals to potentially distressing content in written materials, videos and lectures. While free to the public, tickets are being required, in what Dillon Clark, founder and chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom at U., said was an effort to maintain security at and around the venue.
“We‘re in contact with the university and the police department,” Clark said. “We’re working on all cylinders here to make sure that the First Amendment is protected and that everybody’s safety is protected at the same time.”
On Tuesday, a group of roughly 50 students waited outside Pershing’s office for several hours in an effort to cancel Shapiro’s speech, according to a report in The Daily Utah Chronicle, the U.’s student newspaper.
Pershing met with the students for roughly 10 minutes, according to the Chronicle, before exiting the building with a police escort. On Thursday, the U. president emphasized in his newsletter message that his administration is unable to regulate what can and cannot be said on campus.
“But make no mistake,” Pershing wrote, “by permitting free expression, we are not endorsing any particular speaker or viewpoint.”
Clark said he expected pushback over his group’s event. But he said he didn’t know how strongly critics would react, or that the university would feel compelled to get riot-prevention tips from Berkeley.
“I knew there would be protests,” he said. “There is a very strong kind of radical left-wing presence on the University of Utah campus.”
Berkeley has seen a number of high-profile and violent campus demonstrations in recent years, including a protest in February that caused $100,000 in damage and led to the cancellation of a speech by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.
Demonstrations at Utah campuses are, in most cases, comparably peaceful, such as last year’s U. commencement ceremony where two dozen graduates stood and turned their backs in protest of an honorary degree award for philanthropist Lynette Nielsen Gay.
But Utah administrators have been moved to take action in the past. In 2004, Utah Valley University — then Utah Valley State College — responded to backlash over a speech by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore by scheduling a mirror event by radio and cable news host Sean Hannity.
Clark said his goal in booking Shapiro was to help conservative students have a larger impact at the U., and also to challenge what he called the “institutional leftism” of college campuses.
“We wanted to increase the dialogue on campus and make a fair fight for conservatives on campus,” Clark said, “because oftentimes we get overlooked and looked down upon.”