Ticket dispute over conservative speaker at University of Utah raises accusations of racial discrimination

Speech organizers, opponents disagree over tickets to right-wing writer and commentator Ben Shapiro, scheduled to visit the Salt Lake City campus on Wednesday.

(Tribune file photo) University of Utah campus in April.

Members of a diverse group of University of Utah students say they were blocked from receiving tickets to an upcoming speech by conservative writer Ben Shapiro after spending the night on campus to secure a spot in line.

Event organizers dispute those claims, saying instead that the student group exploited a loophole in order to butt in front of a queue of hundreds of people outside the U. student union on Saturday morning.

“We were happy to give them tickets if they would have waited in line with everyone else,” said Dillon Clark, founder and chairman of the U.‘s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. “They chose to try and cheat the system.”

Jasmine Robinson, a junior U. student who is black, said there has been a lot of “unrest and uneasiness” on campus over the visit by Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News.

Students opposed to the event previously staged a sit-in outside the office of U. President David Pershing. And Robinson said members of the university’s Black Student Union, Asian American Student Association and other diversity clubs hoped to secure tickets to Shapiro’s Wednesday remarks to peacefully demonstrate their dissent.

“It wasn’t going to be a big fuss,” Robinson said. “We were just going to put headphones in, turn our backs, [or] walk out in the middle.”

Robinson said the group of roughly 25 students obtained permission from a university administrator to remain in the student union after hours Friday night. They stayed in the Center for Ethnic and Student Affairs, Robinson said, and arrived at the ticketing tables for the Shapiro event around 7:45 a.m. Saturday morning, 15 minutes before the doors to the student center were opened.

But before they arrived at 7:45 a.m., Clark said, a line of roughly 450 people had already formed outside the locked doors of the student center. The students should have exited the building and joined the appropriate line, he said, rather than expect to jump ahead of people waiting outside.

Any claims of racial discrimination are “absolutely ridiculous,” Clark said, and after discussions with campus security and staff, the Young Americans for Freedom agreed to provide a handful of tickets to the group of students who slept in the student union building.

“We did want them to have some representation there,” Clark said. “The whole point of the lecture is to have people with opposing viewpoints come and listen to Ben.”

Robinson said her group took steps to ensure they would be the first to arrive when tickets became available. She said event organizers saw students of color arrive and went around them to distribute tickets to the mostly-Caucasian individuals outside.

“From all the looks of it, there’s really no other way to explain it than it was blatant racial discrimination,” she said. “Everyone just went to peacefully get in line. We didn’t have any signs. We didn’t have anything.”

U. spokesman Chris Nelson confirmed that the students were told by an administrator they could remain in the building overnight. But it was not clear, Nelson said, whether that person’s approval was in keeping with campus policy.

“Those students were told that by someone in authority here,” Nelson said. “I think there‘s a question as to whether that was the right call or not.”

Nelson said that because Shapiro’s speech is student-sponsored, Young Americans for Freedom enjoys some latitude in determining how to distribute tickets and admit guests to their event.

But the university is committed to equity and diversity, Nelson said, and action could be taken against a student club if it was found to be discriminatory.

“They can certainly set the rules,” Nelson said, “but they can‘t set rules that would in some way discriminate their peer students.”

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.

Shapiro’s 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.

Similar speeches by Shapiro have sparked controversy at other universities, including at the University of California, Berkeley, where U. representatives visited earlier this month to observe the California school’s response to protestors and demonstrators.

The University of Utah event is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the auditorium of the Social and Behavioral Sciences building. The venue capacity is roughly 400 people, Clark said, and every ticket available was distributed on Saturday.

Clark said the size of the venue is primarily due to availability of spaces on campus. He said event organizers are looking into other options, like live broadcasts or overflow viewing areas, to make the speech available to additional guests.

“We’re trying to accommodate,” he said, “and make sure as many people can watch as possible.”