A student group hosted a speaker who wants to ‘eradicate ... transgenderism.’ Others at the University of Utah weren’t warned.

Michael Knowles, a political commentator for Daily Wire, has said “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the University of Utah College of Social Work as commentator and author Michael Knowles gave a speech, on Monday, April 8, 2024.

The dean of the University of Utah’s College of Social Work recently learned from a student that his building would be hosting an event with Michael Knowles — a political Daily Wire commentator who has called for the “eradication” of “transgenderism.”

Dean Philip Osteen said he gave all students permission to attend classes remotely Monday, ahead of the evening event that drew protesters and was watched over by police. Two classes typically meet in the building at the same time as the speech and Q&A by Knowles, whose views are “the antithesis” of the ethics in social work, Osteen said.

“My primary goal is to protect and maintain the safety of students and their right to a learning environment,” the dean said. He added: “Just over two weeks ago is when I found out from a student.”

Professor Richard Landward said he also was surprised when he heard about the event. “We were notified by a student in my class, like, two weeks ago,” said Landward, who emphasized that he was speaking on his own behalf, not the university’s.

“She’s like, ‘Do you know this is happening? Is the college really doing this?’ And I said, ‘Let me check with … our dean,’ and they had no idea. And it has since caused chaos — especially in the classroom.”

Knowles’ appearance, titled “No Child Is In The Wrong Body,” occurred Monday evening — the first day of Pride Week within the College of Social Work, and the first academic day after the universitywide Pride Week’s conclusion.

He took the stage less than one week after the university announced it will no longer allow the Block U on campus to take on colors resembling the pride flag during future Pride Weeks, or to be wrapped in vinyl for any other event.

Knowles was invited to speak by the U.’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter — a rightwing activist group that in recent months has caused controversy at the school by hosting anti-transgender events. Knowles has repeatedly called to ban transgender identities.

In an Instagram post, the U. chapter posted that “liberal ideology” had been “sweeping the U;” it added: “Come hear the other side and challenge your thoughts.”

The free event also comes a month after Gov. Spencer Cox signed bills rollling back diversity, equity and inclusion measures at state institutions and imposing restrictions on transgender people in public spaces.

‘Conservatives are not safe’

Before 6 p.m. Monday, a line of people waiting to enter the auditorium was wrapped around the building. Dozens of protestors stood inside and outside, across from the line, with signs that read, “Trans lives matter,” “Stop erasing trans people” and “Jesus loves trans people.”

As he began speaking, Knowles said he had expected a calmer reaction in “meek and mild Utah.” He referred to a video posted to YAF’s X account of a woman approaching and cursing at a U. student who had distributed flyers about Knowles’ event in Salt Lake City.

“Even in Utah, it seems,” Knowles said, “the state comprising the nicest and most polite people in all of North America, conservatives are not safe to express perfectly ordinary, mainstream, commonsense views in public without harassment. Not even in Utah can conservatives retreat from the cultural war which the left has initiated and which the left will continue to wage until they conquer the entire country or until we beat them first.”

Knowles listed recent sharp increases in the number of people who identify as transgender or nonbinary, and outlined the medical history of how transgender people have been regarded and treated in Europe and in the United States before describing America as a “radical outlier.”

“This philosophical and psychological sickness of transgenderism has taken hold especially in America because our nation is, in so many ways, exceptional,” he said.

The scope of opportunity and advantages in America have led to the temptation of pride, Knowles said. “The temptation to believe that we really can be and do anything at all. That we can transcend not just the limits of convention, but of reality.”

After speaking for 30 minutes, Knowles took questions from audience members who thanked him for coming to Utah and asked for his advice on raising children, what books to read, what young conservatives can do better, and how to be kind while standing up for what is right. The crowd gave him a standing ovation and cheered as Knowles began and as he concluded the event.

The auditorium in the College of Social Work seats about 300; as the event began, YAF members estimated they were turning hundreds more away.

Choosing the auditorium was a logistical decision, said Lucy Atwood, chairperson of the U.’s YAF Chapter. A few years ago, a previous YAF chapter had hosted speaker Ben Shapiro there, and the security plan was still usable, she said. Metal detectors will be in place for the event.

The location for Knowles’ appearance “isn’t an attack on anyone in particular in the College of Social Work,” Atwood said. “Everyone here is a student. And everyone here has the right to bring a speaker, no matter what they want to talk about.”

Atwood said that there are many liberal clubs and student organizations at the U. but few conservative ones. “I feel very strongly that it is a very liberal campus,” she said. “I think coming here, as a conservative, you have to be very cautious about what you are learning from professors since it is so liberal and one-sided.”

‘Have it somewhere else’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters gathered in the University of Utah College of Social Work as Daily Wire host Michael Knowles spoke and answered questions on Monday, April 8, 2024.

There is no policy to automatically notify colleges about student events, a spokesperson for the U. said. After the U. receives a request, it’s evaluated by an informal group of reviewers, which includes representatives from Public Safety, she explained. Colleges can ask to be alerted, she added.

The College of Social Work has asked to be informed of future events, said Osteen, who was at the building with other faculty late Monday afternoon.

Some social work students said they felt like the YAF chapter had targeted their building.

”I [support] their ability to have free speech,” said Valeria Wilson, a junior. “Maybe not in a building that’s intended for social workers and for people who are ethically responsible for promoting inclusivity. Maybe have it somewhere else.”

Miranda Webb, a senior, agreed. ”Our life purpose is equity and equality and human rights and standing for that,” said Webb. “We’re reacting as we’ve been taught to.”

Webb was referring to dozens of pride flags hanging in the building’s atrium and balloons placed in the lobby. “What we did with the flags, that was an act of love,” Wilson said.

“When we first began the conversation of, ‘Okay, what are we going do? How are we feeling?’ the response from everybody was that we want to meet this with love,” Wilson said. “We want to show the trans community and the [LGBTQ] community that we stand with them, and that they’re safe here, and that will speak up for them.”

In the days after word of Knowles’ appearance began spreading through the College of Social Work, students and faculty organized responses. In addition to allowing students to participate in classes online, Osteen said, the college made sure they know how to access mental health resources.

The college also co-hosted an event at the same time about political protest at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

“These types of messages, which are discriminatory, denigrate against people, even though they are protected by the Constitution, they are the antithesis of the values and ethics of professional social work,” Osteen said.

CJ Michalec, a transgender nonbinary graduate student in social work, said while Knowles’ and Young Americans for Freedom’s comments are protected as free speech, they often cross the line of what Michalec believes should be allowed at an educational institution — “it’s threatening, and it’s intimidating and it’s harassment.”

“I think it’s the duty of an academic institution to protect everybody that attends their school,” Michalec said, “and when I feel unsafe because people are being welcomed onto our campus that are calling for an eradication of my identity and my personhood, my university is letting me down.”

‘We will not ... permit’ canceling on campus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Organizers draped in the American flag prepare for the crowd in the University of Utah College of Social Work building, where Daily Wire host Michael Knowles spoke on Monday, April 8, 2024.

At the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Knowles said, “For the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”

Some have interpreted Knowles’ comments as “genocidal.” He responded on his show in February 2023 by saying “there can’t be a genocide” because being transgender is “not a legitimate category of being.”

Experts from multiple professional organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — affirm that being transgender and gender nonconforming is much more than an ideology, and recognize them as a person’s identity and sense of self.

His appearance came after the Utah Legislature passed restrictions on the transgender community for the third consecutive year, and as hate crimes against LGBTQ+ Utahns rose 256% last year.

The university has long defended the right of conservative student groups to bring inflammatory guests to campus as free speech. And the ability of higher education institutions to comment on such events, and the rhetoric that stems from them, was restricted late last year when Cox required universities to establish policies committing to neutrality.

“We will not on our campuses in Utah permit groups of students from canceling other people in their views at their events,” Cox said in December.

In response to the display of pride flags in the building, Atwood said, YAF members had asked the dean if they could display the American flag as well. The dean denied their request, she said. “It’s obvious that they discriminate against conservatives by not allowing us to put up an American flag,” she said.

Club members draped American flags around their shoulders at the event and used one as a tablecloth at the welcome table for registering attendees.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People enter the University of Utah's College of Social Work where Daily Wire host Michael Knowles later spoke, on Monday, April 8, 2024.

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