Yesterday afternoon, conservative author and political commentator Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large of the Breitbart News Network, spoke at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), but not without struggle.
Shapiro’s talk, entitled “When Diversity Becomes a Problem,” was first unilaterally cancelled by CSULA President William Covino on the basis that the event would not be “inclusive” of differing viewpoints. After Shapiro vowed to show up anyway, Covino relented and CSULA issued a statement—about an hour before the talk was scheduled to begin—stating that CSULA would “allow” Shapiro to speak.
Covino’s statement, however, departed from his earlier concern about the need for “differing viewpoints” and instead expressed a concern for safety:
Leading up to the event, there were a number of emails and social media posts that caused concern for the campus community. Given threats and expressions of fear, President William A. Covino proposed a rescheduled event that would be civil and inclusive, and in which Mr. Shapiro and speakers with other viewpoints could offer their perspectives in an organized forum.
“My decision was made in the interest of safety and security,” Covino said. “I am disappointed that Mr. Shapiro has not accepted my invitation to speak in such a forum. He has indicated that he will come to Cal State LA to speak today at the University-Student Union Theatre, where he was originally scheduled to deliver his talk,” Covino told the University community Thursday morning.
In doing so, Covino indicated a troubling willingness to surrender to the “heckler’s veto”: the justification that speech should be silenced because of the reaction it would draw from the audience or the speaker’s detractors. Just as CSULA cannot lawfully restrict speech because its president objects to the content of the speech, neither may CSULA restrict speech because of the negative reaction it might draw. As the Supreme Court explained in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), “Listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation. … Speech cannot be … punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”
Nevertheless, where CSULA’s president failed to prevent Shapiro from speaking last night, some of its students certainly tried. While many students protested Shapiro’s appearance outside the venue—adopting a “more speech” approach to a speaker they found offensive—some sought to prevent Shapiro from speaking at all, and to prevent those who wanted to hear Shapiro from attending the speech by physically blocking entrances to the theater. One protester, for example, remarked that anyone who wanted to hear Shapiro’s speech could listen to it online, “but the thing is, you’re not going in through that door”:
When protesters learned that attendees were using a back entrance to get in and out of Shapiro’s speech, some reportedly blocked that entrance, too:
— Yzzy Gonzalez (@yzzygonzalez) February 25, 2016
Some people in the crowd, unfortunately, engaged in shoving matches, although the College Fix reports that these “never escalated into a full-blown battle and the physical altercations only lasted about 10 to 15 seconds.”
Once Shapiro actually began speaking, a fire alarm began blaring. Who pulled the fire alarm is unknown. Shapiro, who later left under police escort, nevertheless continued speaking: Protesters also found their way to President Covino’s office, where they held a sit-in protest. Unfortunately, at least some of these protesters were angry that Covino had “allowed” Shapiro’s speech at all. One student leader remarked:
[Shapiro’s] views incite hate speech and violence and we are against hate speech… this is our campus and we supposed to feel comfortable and like we are in a safe space. And we do not feel that way and the administration ignored that and still allowed this guy to come.
Student protesters, who had sought to prevent Covino from leaving campus, vowed to resume their protest today. Some have called on Covino to resign:
— TheUniversityTimes (@CalStateLAUT) February 25, 2016
Shapiro’s speech—including speaking over a fire alarm—can be viewed in full here.