Gonzaga latest university to be tested on free speech

With 500 people in attendance, conservative political commentator Ben Shaprio delivers an address at the University of Connecticul titled "White Privilege, Microaggressions, and Other Leftist Myths." (Photograph by Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant via AP) 

Why are the places where free expression should be most protected the same places where it is under attack?

Gonzaga University in Spokane has refused a request from the school’s College Republican chapter to allow a speech from best-selling conservative author, radio host and web entrepreneur Ben Shapiro on its campus. The college has cited security concerns and fears that a visit may incite hateful and offensive speech, in particular from protesters.

This is the same Catholic university that last fall allowed Communist Party firebrand Angela Davis on campus, as well as permitting supporters of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Which is fine. Exposing students to unique, offbeat, eccentric and radical perspectives is a way of deepening their perspectives on issues. But why wouldn’t that apply to right-of-center voices as well?

According to a written statement from the college’s vice president of student development, Judi Biggs Garbuio, “Mr. Shapiro’s appearances have drawn protests that include inappropriate behavior, as well as divisive and hateful speech, which is offensive to many people regardless of their age, politics or beliefs. … We stand in solidarity with vulnerable members of our community who may be targeted for discrimination, ridicule or harassment by others.”

In other words, even if Shapiro’s speech and behavior aren't hateful, the actions of people protesting him might be — so cancel his speech. Could there be a more vivid display of caving in to a heckler’s veto?

But that instinct — squelch speech that inflames the far left — isn’t unique to Gonzaga.

The University of California, Berkeley, unlike Gonzaga, is a public institution and simply banning right-of-center speakers is legally problematic. Instead, Berkeley laid down absurd conditions for hosting them. Student sponsors were not permitted to use auditoriums or venues near the center of campus and instead were banished to the fringes of university property. They were required to schedule the event in the afternoon rather than evening. In other words, make it as inconvenient to attend (and for protesters to disrupt) the speech as possible. And charge an exorbitant security fee.

At the University of Washington, the school also went the economic route, telling campus Republicans they would need to pay a $17,000 security fee to hold a Saturday afternoon rally on Red Square last year. It’s tempting to rationalize that campus administrators were simply trying to keep people safe, but if the campus branch of the NARAL Pro-Choice America wanted to bring a pro-choice activist to campus and a radical pro-life group threatened mayhem, would the UW have demanded that the students cough up $17,000 to deal with possible vandalism and violence from pro-life extremists?

The good news is that sanity at both Berkeley and the UW prevailed.

At Berkeley, new Chancellor Carol Christ made it clear that the university would pay whatever was necessary to provide security for Ben Shapiro’s appearance there. She meant what she said: It cost $600,000, with the university bringing in police from 10 different campuses and nine arrests being made. The speech went on, the violent opposition was broken, and there has been a series of appearances by conservative scholars, journalists, activists and intellectuals since without the violence and property damage of prior years.

At the UW, the kids lawyered up, went to court and convinced U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman that the security charge amounted to a chill on free speech. The judge blocked the university from collecting the fee, with the event going on as planned. Later, with the encouragement of UW Law School faculty, the campus administration settled with the College Republicans, picked up their legal costs, rescinded its security-fee policy and declared that free speech would prevail on campus.

Credit UW President Ana Mari Cauce for getting that done. 

Back to Gonzaga. The student Republicans have appealed the university’s decision to nix the Shapiro speech and will likely bring him to speak in a venue nearby if the university persists in denying him a platform. For his part, Shapiro says he’s looking forward to coming. With the most popular conservative daily podcast in the country and a newly expanded radio show, he is a guaranteed draw.

Gonzaga VP Garbuio told me she expects the appeal to be decided by month’s end. “With this and all events, Gonzaga must consider the safety and security of our campus community and visitors,” she added.

It’s not hard to make that happen. Allow the Ben Shapiro speech to take place. If demonstrators try to block the venue or disrupt the program underway, eject them. If they resist, have campus police or security arrest them. If there are students among those arrested, they should be suspended for the semester. Anyone who violently resists arrest should be charged with assault. Any students who do that should be expelled.  Any staff among them should be fired. Nonstudents who are arrested would be sued by Gonzaga for the costs of the security incurred by their disruption. The school should widely publicize this policy beforehand. 

This is not a showdown between right and left; it’s a showdown between an institution that respects free speech and a group of activists who are intolerant of speech they disagree with. The intellectual and enrollment meltdown at Evergreen State College is what happens when left-wing extremism triumphs over liberal principle. It should not happen at Gonzaga, or any other institution of higher learning.

The test of free speech isn’t protecting content you agree with; it’s protecting speech you oppose. That is the test facing Gonzaga right now.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.