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Why controversial speakers come to campus

At times, the University of Utah’s campus can seem like a free speech battleground.

From conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro’s 2017 speech on campus at the height of the George Floyd protests to Covid-denying doctors to anti-Trans activist Chloe Cole’s visit last fall, the place can sometimes feel like ground zero for U.S. culture wars. Most recently, the actual war between Israel and Hamas, and resulting civilian deaths in Gaza, has sparked several student protests and counterprotests throughout the 2023-24 school year.

For some, the off-color comments, flyers, posters and chants involved are hate speech. For others, they’re just an alternative perspective to academia’s perceived entrenched liberalism.

While the clash between belief systems plays out on the sidewalks, hallways and auditoriums of the U, many campus stakeholders are wondering why the university allows controversial speakers, comedians, and student protests to find stages on campus. Why is this happening in my building? And why can’t we stop it?

As a state university, the U is a public space. Not every location on campus is a free speech zone, but many are. University leaders are committed to supporting students’ rights to free expression, speech and assembly. As a place of learning, debate and intellectual inquiry, the university welcomes robust discussion and exchange of ideas, even when the ideas are unpopular or controversial.

‘We must ensure that our campus welcomes and respects the broad range of voices and perspectives of our students, as well as our faculty, staff and the communities we serve,” President Taylor Randall wrote in a letter establishing the Viewpoint Representation and Expression Taskforce this year.

So, how do university leaders go about scheduling events for campus?

Most events start with a calendar submission from a recognized student group or campus community member. Outside groups also may rent space on campus. An informal group of staff from across campus—Facilities, Public Safety, Registrar’s Office schedulers, Student Affairs and University Communications—reviews each event to determine whether the location will work, if there are competing events scheduled nearby, and should University Police provide security or crowd control.

If the event is likely to stir protests or counter-programming, facilities managers and safety leaders may recommend a new location, schedule another date, or suggest ticketing for the event. In general, most events are confirmed and scheduled within a week of an application.

With protests, the university also can adopt appropriate time, place and manner restrictions aimed at fostering and creating an environment for safe speech. The U has outlined that right in the university’s speech policy.

As noted in the speech policy, demonstrations are a legitimate means of expression that have played an important role in the university’s collective history. For that reason, university policy allows individuals to demonstrate freely, as long as their conduct is not violent, does not unduly disrupt the functioning of the university, interfere with the rights of other members of the university community or damage university or private property.

Some locations on campus may be selected to protect both the speakers and the protestors—and provide University Police the best circumstances for maintaining public safety. And only a handful of spaces may have enough seating for the expected audience. Auditoriums in the Behavioral Science Building, LNCO and Social Work Building are such places—sufficient exits and entrances; room to collect tickets and check bags, and space to set up magnetometers, if requested.

University leaders also will lay out the at the beginning of the event to ensure no one in the audience attempts to shout down the speakers in a “heckler’s veto.”

“The university supports and is committed to open, free and robust discussion, debate and exchange of ideas as an indispensable part of its educational mission, even when the ideas expressed are unpopular,” said Dean of Students Jason Ramirez. “At the same time, the university has an obligation to ensure the safety and security of individuals and property and that the university’s operations, functions and events are not disrupted.”

Going forward, university leaders have committed to coordinate communication about events that may require security or a police presence with deans and department chairs so the students, faculty and staff using the buildings are not surprised by speakers, or the advertising used to promote them and can plan classes and other activities accordingly.