By Daniel Ruskin
The University of Connecticut College Republicans have invited Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, to speak on Jan. 24 in the Rome Ballroom just a few months after the club’s last guest, Lucian Wintrich, was involved in an altercation on campus.
Shapiro frequently speaks at university campuses and made headlines late last year for a controversial speech at the University of California Berkeley. At UC Berkeley, Shapiro discussed his perspective on topics ranging from identity politics to the social movement Black Lives Matter in a speech titled “Say No to Campus Thuggery.” The event attracted protesters and resulted in nine arrests, but otherwise proceeded peacefully for the most part, according to a CNN report.
Shapiro’s visit to UConn comes just a few months after Gateway Pundit correspondent Lucian Wintrich came to campus. Last November, Wintrich attempted to give a controversial speech titled “It’s OK To Be White.” His event attracted fiery protests and ended abruptly with his arrest after a physical altercation with an audience member.
Charges against Wintrich were ultimately dropped, but the UConn administration responded to the incident by making significant changes to the speaker review and approval process.
In a statement obtained by the Boston Globe, UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz explained the purpose of the new process: “We don’t regulate speeches based on content … This [review] is purely to make sure that [each event] is safe, secure and protects everyone’s rights.” This security review is conducted by the University’s Student Affairs department.
A Facebook post by the UConn College Republicans describes a few of the new security measures, “Please note that bags will be checked prior to entry. Also, water bottles and signs will be prohibited. General admission to this event will be open to students and faculty of the university only.”
Brian Ruel, a registered Libertarian and member of the UConn College Republicans club, said he is optimistic about the event.
“With somebody like Ben Shapiro, he is extremely attractive for somebody who is very pro-free speech – he’s somebody that a lot of people like because he tells it like it is, you know?” Ruel said.
Ruel also believes strongly in the importance of free speech and diverse opinions on college campuses.
“I absolutely think that the open dialogue on any college campus is extremely important,” Ruel said. “You never want a stagnation of opinions, even the right opinions.”
Ruel did acknowledge that some of Shapiro’s viewpoints might be discomforting or hurtful to UConn students, but he called on them to keep an open mind.
“For anybody who may be reading this or listening to it, I would say, just in general, don’t be so quick to judge people for their political differences.” He expands, “The best thing you can do if you want to back up [your opposing opinions] … is just go and take in everything he says.”
He encourages those who disagree with Shapiro to ask questions during the Q&A session. Shapiro has a reputation of thoroughly addressing questions, Ruel said, even from those who do not share his viewpoints.
Luke Anderson, a UConn sophomore, does not share Ruel’s enthusiasm for the upcoming event. Anderson is registered as a Democrat for primaries, but largely identifies as an independent.
“I just think in regards to pundits such as Lucian Wintrich and Ben Shapiro, one of their biggest flaws from my standpoint is … I don’t see them having much empathy or much understanding for the implications of what they say,” Anderson said.
Anderson specifically criticized Shapiro’s talking points on identity politics.
“[Ben Shapiro] utilizes identity politics in his own way, because he … names protestors as snowflakes and stuff. I think [that] is his own type of identity branding and that’s more used to subjugate and demean people, as opposed to identity politics of the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter … which are more empowering groups,” Anderson said.
Both Anderson and Ruel share at least one opinion: they are both optimistic that Shapiro’s visit will turn out better than the Wintrich event.
Anderson said, “I definitely have more faith in my fellow college students after seeing what has happened after that event.”
Ruel echoes this thought, saying, “I think this whole Lucian Wintrich event has been…while it was unfortunate how it went, I do think it has been very effective in giving us an opportunity to look at how we approach these situations and improving them massively.”
Joelle Murchison, the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Connecticut emphasized the important role of universities to facilitate diverse dialogue, saying that “One of the reasons that the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was actually created was to ensure that there were opportunities on campus to bring awareness to different perspectives and also provide basis for that dialogue to occur, and I think that certainly, as a university, we have a responsibility to provide that space for a variety of perspectives to be heard.”
She encourages interested students to attend the event with an open mind, thoughtful questions and an eye for safety.
However, Murchison also acknowledged the potential for speakers such as Shapiro to make students uncomfortable.
“I think there are some instances where there may be commentary or viewpoints that are shared that feel very directed or targeted towards individuals. … We hope that students here at UConn find that the campus is open and inclusive to all students, no matter their background or whatever their identity might be, or identities might be,” Murchison said.
As part of her inclusion efforts, Murchison sent an email early last week to the cultural centers about the Shapiro event.
According to Murchison, this email was partially motivated by students’ concerns about the Wintrich event last semester. Students expressed concerns to her office that they were not informed about the event until the last minute. Murchison said she felt it was important to address these concerns and inform students well in advance about the Shapiro event.
Murchison wants to remind students that counseling and support services are available to those who wish to talk through or process their thoughts.
Finally, Murchison emphasized the relevance of the Shapiro event to the broader state of UConn campus and society as a whole.
“I think that this moment in our … society right now is really challenging us to think differently, to act differently and to be more curious about different views. And so I hope that this allows us to, instead of really focusing on the disagreement, to find a common ground that will help us to seek more understanding across different perspectives,” Murchison said.