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Gonzaga University cites possibility of protests in refusing to host Ben Shapiro

Last week, Gonzaga University defended its denial of its College Republicans chapter’s request to host conservative commentator Ben Shapiro because of the potential for protesters who might use “offensive” speech. Gonzaga’s refusal to allow Shapiro to come to campus is an abdication of the institution’s obligation to uphold free speech and ensure student safety.

The trouble began in late November when Gonzaga first rebuffed the College Republicans’ plan to bring Shapiro to campus, citing vague concerns over student safety and the university’s educational mission. A few weeks later, Gonzaga Vice President of Student Development Judi Biggs Garbuio clarified that “Shapiro’s appearances routinely draw protests that include extremely divisive and hateful speech and behavior, which is offensive to many people, regardless of their age, politics, or beliefs.” The university later explained that it based its decision on “(a) concerns relating to the safety and security of providing the same, and (b) concerns regarding the potential for inappropriate behavior surrounding the event that might violate our institution’s standards for conduct.”

It was helpful of Gonzaga to lay out exactly why it made this decision. Doing so allows FIRE to explain exactly why it’s extremely problematic, from both a free speech and a student safety perspective.

Starting with free speech: Gonzaga’s actions are a textbook example of a “heckler’s veto,” as the university has chosen to silence a student group’s invited speaker over the potential reaction to their expression. A university that professes to value free speech, as Gonzaga does, must not allow the possibility of disruptive or violent protests to dictate who may speak on campus, thereby giving potential hecklers undue power to “veto” the speech of anyone they dislike. Citing the possibility that some expression may be “extremely divisive” or “hateful” as an excuse to curtail speech cannot be squared with the university’s professed “commitment [and] desire to uphold everyone’s right to freedom of expression.”

Additionally, as an entity with dual obligations to protect free speech and student safety, Gonzaga cannot stifle the former to secure the latter. It is the university’s institutional responsibility, with its police force and quarter-billion-dollar budget, to serve as the final guarantor of the safety of its educational community. When student groups bring controversial speakers to campus, the university cannot throw up its hands and silence its student groups or demonstrators. Instead, it must make good faith efforts to create a plan for maintaining order for the speaker’s event.

Such sentiments were echoed in a letter sent to Gonzaga by 20 Washington state lawmakers, who urged school officials to “reconsider their decision to deny the request made by the university’s College Republicans to bring conservative, political commentator Ben Shapiro to the campus to speak.” The legislators argue that “[c]ampuses should be places of rigorous, free debate that respects the marketplace of ideas from all people of race, religion, ethnicity or political views. Higher education institutions should welcome opportunities for students to hear people and ideas they have not yet fully considered.”

Gonzaga is the latest university to flunk this free speech test — and with several schools set to host Shapiro this coming spring, it may not be the last. FIRE calls on Gonzaga and all colleges hosting controversial speakers to allow students to exercise their right to free expression in engaging with them, whether by listening, asking questions, peacefully protesting, or simply ignoring them. Shutting down speech because of the possibility of violence only ensures that violence, or the threat of it, will become an effective and preferred method of silencing others.

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