Gehrke: Ben Shapiro's University of Utah speech challenges students to assess their values and stand up for truth

Tuesday afternoon, the University of Utah sent out a reminder to those attending the lecture by Ben Shapiro, editor of the ultra-conservative Daily Wire website — leave your masks and weapons at home.

Areas around the building where Shapiro is scheduled to speak Wednesday will be blocked off. There will be a heightened police presence in the anticipation of protests, counter-protests and, potentially, violence.

And it’s not without good reason. When Shapiro spoke at the University of California, Berkeley earlier this month, there were days of protests by students who wanted the event cancelled. An estimated $600,000 was spent on security.

University of Utah students have already staged a sit-in in President David Pershing’s office, calling on him to put a stop to the speech. To the university’s credit, the speech is going forward.

If you’ve never heard of Shapiro, you’re not alone. He’s a conservative flame-thrower, a protege of Andrew Bretibart and one of new breed of right-wing trolls.

(Colin Young-Wolff | Invision/AP) Ben Shapiro attends Politicon at The Pasadena Convention Center on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif.

The ultra-conservative faction of the Republican Party must have funded some sort of science experiment in Rush Limbaugh’s secret lair a few decades ago to genetically splice together the most abrasive and crass parts of Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to create a mutant super-army for the unthinking — Tomi Lahren, Milo Yiannopoulos, and, yeah, Shapiro.

They’re the talking-head Brat Pack of the Fox News generation, unleashed on the world to compete for who can deliver the most incendiary, offensive statements so they can feed on the outrage from the “snowflakes” and grow ever more powerful.

This is a far cry from William F. Buckley’s intellectual conservatism. It’s a reactionary ideology aimed at stoking anger and fear and anxiety.

Shapiro doesn’t offer any thoughtful ideas of his own. He doesn’t have a worldview or a vision on how to make the country or the planet a better place. He thrives solely in opposition to the “establishment” — the bureaucracy and political correctness and also more important things like facts, truth, justice and human decency.

So when a symbol of the establishment, like a group of university students, responds in outrage, protests and calls to cancel Shapiro’s speeches — as students did at Berkeley and, unfortunately, some student groups did at the U. — it empowers him, makes him stronger.

It also helps make one of his key points, and one where he appears to be proven correct in some instances: that college campuses are more interested in suppressing ideas than embracing them.

But here’s the thing: If Ben Shapiro is an idiot then what have you got to worry about? Stupidity is like water — it can’t be held back and ultimately it will come gushing out in torrents. Look at resident radio kook and angry uncle Alex Jones, for example. It’s endless.

If Shapiro is not an idiot — which let’s face it, there’s a decent chance that he isn’t — but just is espousing bad ideas, the way to combat that is with good ideas, because, ultimately, those are the ideas that will prevail, not because they are shouted louder or get preferential treatment, but because they are good.

The Hinckley Institute of Politics and Lowell Bennion Community Service Center got it right, hosting a forum Monday to discuss the sometimes uncomfortable consequences of living in a free society. Everyone is free to say what they want and everyone else is free to get bent out of shape about it.

The answer is always more speech of all sorts, and that is especially true on a college campus, where students should be challenged and not sheltered.

So this is an opportunity for U. students to listen to other ideas, talk about it with friends and debate it with foes and maybe burst out of the cable and internet news-fed bubble many of us are trapped inside.

But to try to shut down the speech does a disservice to our political debate and, worse, it proves his point and feeds the troll.