School Must Face Free-Speech Suit by Conservative Pundit

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – In an ongoing battle over First Amendment rights on college campuses across the country, right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro is pushing back against university policies that conservatives say are designed to stifle their speech. 

Shapiro, a conservative talking head who is a lawyer and the author of seven books, has stirred up controversy since the start of his career at age 17 writing a nationally syndicated column.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro speaking at Politicon in Pasadena, Calif., in 2016. (Photo via Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia)

In 2006, he called for sedition laws targeting anti-government speech to be reinstated. He has been critical of the George W. Bush administration and described former President Barack Obama as a “philosophical facist.” Shapiro was an editor for right-wing news site Breibart News and has called women who have abortions “baby killers.”

He also opposes LGBT rights and believes transgender people are in denial about their biological reality and suffer from a mental health issue rather than gender dysphoria.

Now 35 years old, a black cloud still follows Shapiro around. He often speaks at college campuses throughout the United States promoting his conservative ideas, but is at times restricted or kept away altogether.

In January, the student club Young Americans for Freedom at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles said it was hosting a lecture by Shapiro in April. The announcement drew criticism from the campus community, including a communications professor at the school, Nina Lozana, who tweeted, “Ben Shapiro espouses hate speech, and is linked to numerous hate groups. As a LMU Professor, I will be organizing protests, and alerting the media of LMU’s decision to support hate speech–which is completely antithetical to our University Mission.”

In addition, Shapiro was recently stopped from appearing at Grand Canyon University, a Christian college in Arizona. The school said last month the cancellation was “not a reflection of his ideologies or the values he represents, but rather a desire to focus on opportunities that bring people together.”

But Shapiro is fighting back and, in some cases, is winning.

Last summer, University of Minnesota campus organization Students for a Conservative Voice teamed up with Shapiro and Young America’s Foundation, which organizes conservative speaking events at colleges across the country, to challenge the university’s decision to relocate his February 2018 speech to a smaller venue on its St. Paul campus.

According to the student group and Young America’s Foundation, their goal was to have Shapiro’s speech “in the largest venue available on the Minneapolis campus.”

Students for a Conservative Voice formally requested to use Willey Hall, which seats 1,056 people at the Minneapolis campus, but university officials decided the event needed to be held on the St. Paul campus at a venue that held less than 500 people because of security concerns.

Not only was the venue half the size, but the St. Paul campus is less convenient for the majority of students, the student group claimed. It also argued the university’s use of its large-scale events policy was only a pretext to “banish” Shapiro’s “controversial” conservative views to a place where he would get less attention.

In a 45-page ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson allowed the student group and Shapiro’s as-applied First Amendment claim against the university to move forward.

“The complaint alleges that numerous well-known liberal speakers were allowed to speak in centrally-located university spaces connected to the skyway (all of whom had some need for security by virtue of their celebrity), while Mr. Shapiro, a well-known conservative speaker, was barred from doing so, based in large part on the purported ‘security concerns’ raised by Willey Hall’s ‘access to the skyway,’” Judge Nelson wrote. “Taken as true, this kind of ‘unique scrutiny’ raises a plausible allegation of viewpoint discrimination.” (Parentheses in original.)

An attorney for Shapiro, Students for a Conservative Voice and Young America’s Foundation praised the judge’s ruling in a statement.

Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom and director of ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, said “hundreds of students were denied the ability to attend and participate in the event” in violation of the First Amendment.

“The University of Minnesota imposed restrictions on the Ben Shapiro event based upon a disagreement with the viewpoint of Shapiro’s speech, including banishing it to a remote and undesirable location and limiting the number of attendees to 500, even though the students requested a much larger venue that was available on the Minneapolis campus,” Langhofer said.  

He added, “We look forward to proving this through discovery.”

A spokesperson for Young America’s Foundation said the group “is pleased to see that its First Amendment claim is moving forward and that our students will have their day in court.”

The University of Minnesota, meanwhile, said it “will continue to vigorously defend itself in court. Beyond that, we will let the legal process run its course before we comment further about this ongoing case.”

In December, Young America’s Foundation entered into a settlement with University of California, Berkeley in which the university agreed to alter its events policy to end a federal lawsuit claiming it used “unconstitutionally vague” rules to suppress conservative speech on the campus.

The foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans were to be paid $70,000 under the settlement. The groups said UC Berkeley agreed to rescind its policy charging more money for security for high-profile speakers like Shapiro, and abolish its “heckler’s veto,” meaning protesters will no longer be able to shut down speaking events.

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