University of Pittsburgh students, in disregard of their peers’ First Amendment rights, are pressuring administrators to cancel three upcoming events hosted by conservative student groups because they feature speakers the protestors consider “anti-trans.” Among those students’ many supporters are several state lawmakers who have also publicly called on Pitt to cancel the events.
Later this month, Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA is slated to host The Daily Wire Senior Editor Cabot Phillips. They’re also sponsoring a separate event where decorated Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines — who tied for fifth place with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas at the NCAA Championship — is expected to advocate against transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Then, in mid-April, the College Republicans and Intercollegiate Studies Institute will host a debate on “transgenderism and womanhood” with conservative commentator Michael Knowles and Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, an economist and transgender woman.
The cancellation campaign began when two students started a petition March 7 demanding the university cancel the three events. “It is unacceptable and against the values of this University,” the petition organizers wrote, “to allow groups under its administration and on its behalf to host events featuring individuals who wish to advance a platform of hate and transphobia and make our beloved institution an accomplice to the trending attacks that place trans bodies and humanity in the middle of a culture war fabricated entirely for political gain.”
Two weeks later, the petition has nearly eleven thousand signatures. Students opposing the events have expressed concerns that the speakers “may incite violence against transgender students,” according to news reports, especially, they said, because the Gaines event is scheduled to coincide with the beginning of student group Rainbow Alliance’s Pride Week. Some have also characterized Pitt as hypocritical for allowing the events to proceed given the university’s publicly-stated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania state representative La’Tasha Mayes echoed the demand for cancellation during an appropriations meeting — implicitly threatening Pitt’s requested funding. With university chancellor Patrick Gallagher in attendance at the hearing specifically to request additional funding, Mayes called on him to “cancel the speakers who are coming to campus” because Phillips, Gaines, and Knowles all had a history of “targeting transgender students.”
Mayes’s veiled threat to withhold funding came after two of her colleagues — Malcolm Kenyatta and Jessica Benham, co-chairs of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus in the Pennsylvania House — joined the fray last week by publicly condemning Pitt’s decision to allow the events on campus. Demonstrating a common misconception about the First Amendment, Benham said, “This is not a free speech issue. Hate speech is not protected speech. This is about the safety of transgender students and recognizing that transgender people exist.”
The ability of student groups at a public university to invite and hear speakers of their choice is absolutely a free speech issue.
Expression doesn’t lose First Amendment protection solely because some, or even many, deem it “hateful.” While the First Amendment doesn't protect expression made with the intent to intimidate or threaten physical violence against another person, the Supreme Court has repeatedly declared that mere use of “hateful” expression, without more, remains protected speech. That’s because,
[s]peech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and . . . inflict great pain. . . . [W]e cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.
The Court recently reaffirmed as much in Matal v. Tam, when it refused to establish a limit on speech viewed as “hateful” or demeaning “on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground.”
Of course, the petition and calls for the events’ cancellation are likewise protected speech. Students who object to the three speakers also have a constitutional right to protest the events themselves, so long as they don’t disrupt the events in such a way that they cannot effectively occur. That would be a “heckler’s veto,” which the First Amendment does not protect.
Luckily, Pitt understands its obligations under the First Amendment better than the events’ opponents do. In response to the petition, the university released a media statement on March 8 affirming the institution’s commitment to free speech:
As a public university, we also uphold the principles of protected speech and expression and acknowledge that legally protected speech and expression can at times offend and marginalize some members of our community and contradict unwavering university values. As an academic community, we encourage intellectual critique of and peaceful dissent from opposing viewpoints, counterspeech, and disengagement from experiences that do not support personal well-being.
Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd followed that on March 16 with a campus-wide email reminding students that “registered independent student organizations are permitted to invite outside speakers of their choosing to campus if they follow University guidelines and the law.” Cudd also reaffirmed Pitt’s respect for its First Amendment obligations to free speech by advising students, if they so choose, to protest the events without disrupting them:
As a public university, we must and do uphold the principles of protected speech and expression. That is a tradition and an expectation as old as the University itself—and it lies at the heart of free and open inquiry and academic discourse.
We acknowledge that legally protected speech and expression can at times offend, marginalize, and cause distress to some members of our community.
[ . . . ]
A few academic areas have already proactively shared plans to engage in counter speech in response to the planned events. This is the type of intellectual exchange and peaceful dissent that will serve us best.
In response to Representative Mayes’s veiled threat to withhold funding, Gallagher told her that Pitt did not intend to cancel the events, citing the university’s free speech policy.
And Pitt News quoted a university spokesman as confirming that student groups “have the right to invite ‘highly provocative’ speakers on campus ‘without University administration deciding what is acceptable and what is not.’” He explained that “[w]hile peaceful protest is allowed, it cannot interfere with University events or operations. The University has well-established procedures to properly handle these situations, and we are committed to working with our community members to ensure they understand our policies and procedures.”
FIRE is always happy to recognize when a university acts to protect the First Amendment rights of invited speakers, student groups, and protesting students. By clearly and repeatedly articulating its constitutional obligation to respect the expression of invited speakers as well as the right of other students to protest those speakers, Pitt’s response to the students and lawmakers calling for cancellation of the events should serve as a model for other universities.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).