The line to get into Anita Hill’s lecture at the University of Utah started to form at 4 p.m. — three hours before she was scheduled to speak Wednesday.
By 5 p.m., hundreds of people were there, winding down the sidewalk and wrapping around the building. Most of those who got there after 6 p.m. were too late to make it inside. Before Hill’s speech started at 7 p.m., all 600 seats were filled and dozens of people stood against the walls of the auditorium.
Another 300 to 400 people were turned away. The space was just too small.
“We tried to fit as many people in as we could in line with fire codes,” said Megan Dipo, spokeswoman for the Tanner Humanities Center, which hosted the event. “Unfortunately, it was impossible for us to move to a different venue.”
Hill’s visit was planned and booked 10 months ago for the Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House. She was invited to talk on campus about testifying in 1991 that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her when they had worked together. And she intended to relate it to the current #MeToo movement, which last year sparked a nationwide reckoning over assault and harassment.
But an event that might have gone under the radar — or at least had more tempered interest — exploded this week when it ended up, by coincidence, lining up on the day before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to hear testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward this month to say that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school.
The case has undeniably echoed Hill’s experience from 27 years ago. The university had no way of anticipating it.
“It was just perfect timing,” Dipo said.
Hailey Freeman arrived at the U. for Hill’s speech at 6 p.m. and got in line with a friend. She had been reviewing transcripts of Hill’s testimony over the past few weeks and wanted to hear her speak “because she is one of the bravest women I have ever seen.”
“I believe that the #MeToo movement would not have been possible without her,” Freeman said.
The line slowly trickled in and when Freeman was the third person back from going inside, the event organizers shut the doors. And they didn’t explain why, she added. Someone in the crowd found a side door and asked someone what was going on. They relayed to those waiting outside: The venue had reached its maximum capacity.
“I was devastated that I couldn’t make it inside,” Freeman said. “They should have had a bigger venue. No question. ... It was definitely short-sighted to think this wasn’t going to be a bigger event.”
Several others tweeted their frustrations. One person mentioned that people were pressing their ears to the glass walls of the building to try to hear. Another said, “This is an extremely important event and all should be able to comfortably attend.”
Dipo said that by the time the university realized how popular Hill’s speech would be, all of the larger spaces on campus were booked. It wasn’t possible to move, confirmed Jana Cunningham, spokeswoman with the College of Humanities.
“She was scheduled months and months ago,” Cunningham said. “But with recent events, the popularity seemed to really increase.”
Hill’s speaking contract, too, stipulated that the speech could not be recorded or broadcast, so the university wasn’t able to live-stream it in an overflow space — which it often does to accommodate larger events.
Hill, 62, now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, worked with Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In October 1991, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that in those offices, he talked to her about pornographic material and “his own sexual prowess.” It did not derail his appointment.
“For me," she said Wednesday night, "the integrity of the court was the issue.”