Conservative group under fire for upcoming controversial speaker Ben Shapiro
Cal State LA community debates over the limits of free speech and the place in public universities for divisive political dialogue
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On Jan. 21st, Cal State LA’s Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter published a post on their Facebook page announcing that Ben Shapiro, a conservative speaker and the editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, would arrive on campus on Feb. 25th to speak at the group’s event ‘When Diversity Becomes a Problem’ in the University-Student Union Theatre. Since its announcement, intense social media debate has cropped up between members of both Cal State LA and outside affiliations.
‘When Diversity Becomes a Problem’ is one of the many stops in Shapiro’s national college tour for YAF. It claims to be a “nationwide tour invading campus ‘safe spaces’,” according to The Daily Wire.
This tour follows Shapiro’s highly controversial appearances at the University of Missouri and Otay Ranch High School, the latter resulted in an administrator of Otay Ranch High School actually stopping the event mid-speech “because he (Shapiro) informed the students that Americans who were permanently poor had made poor decisions rather than suffered victimization by the American system,” according to The Daily Wire. The belief among some members of Cal State LA is that this campus is one of many being targeted for its strong diversity values.
“This is part of a wide campaign around the country by right wing reactionary groups that are targeting diverse campuses such as ours,” said Dr. Robert Weide, a sociology professor at Cal State LA. “Our campus is largely people of color, we serve marginalized communities across South L.A., East L.A., and San Gabriel, and we won the fight last year over having an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement, a fight which some are still angry about.”
This anger between two very different attitudes is quickly pointed out by the YAF page, which states that “based on Shapiro’s record of igniting the fury of leftist activists at every school he visits, it is fair to expect that this lecture tour will include a variety of explosive confrontations with campus liberals.”
Concern over the context of this event—which speaks out against trigger warnings, microaggressions, Black Lives Matter, safe spaces, and #concernedstudents1950 among other topics—has indeed led to intense discussion among Facebook users on the event’s page, drawing commenters from across the United States. A Facebook opposition page titled “POWER TO THE PEOPLE! Anti-racist Counter Demonstration” has even been set up to oppose YAF’s event and the funding for it, which was partly provided by Associated Students, Inc. (ASI).
The counter-event page’s host, Jose Trinidad Castañeda III, voiced his concerns over the deeper meaning of such an event occurring at Cal State LA.
“The points YAF are trying to get at go deeper than the Facebook comments section. They use certain arguments to make the case that the Left is attacking freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry,” Castañeda wrote. “They’ve latched onto this idea that we are all victims, and we have created a culture of victimhood. This situation is symbolic and representative of political tensions igniting across the U.S.”
Multiple Facebook users, both Cal State LA students and faculty, have lent support to this view, saying that Shapiro’s viewpoint makes light of the hardship faced by People of Color (POC) and that it threatens the safety of Cal State LA’s extremely diverse campus community.
“Cal State LA is one of the most diverse campuses in this country,” Cal State LA student Jaime Guzmán wrote. “It is considered a Hispanic-serving institution and this event is being held? Let’s not forget that this campus is on the outskirts of East Los Angeles, quite literally between East L.A. and El Sereno, both communities known for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement!”
YAF has responded to this with articles against “CSULA leftists”—stating that protestors are “spoiled children” trying to destroy free speech—and against Dr. Weide. Multiple ultraconservative news sources have banded together to accuse Dr. Weide of threatening students through the Facebook event page.
This occurred after a Facebook supporter of the event, who was not a student, posted the profile picture of a Cal State LA student and attempted to intimidate and mock them. Dr. Weide responded with the intention of defending this student against the Facebook users who were not actually members of the Cal State LA community.
A band of conservative newspapers—including Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, Ethics Alarms, and The Blaze—soon published articles accusing the professor of physically threatening Cal State LA students, a gross misconception which has resulted in phoned in and emailed death threats from some of the same people who’ve lashed out at the events protesters on the Facebook page. A crime report on these threats has been filed with the campus police.
A man named Doyle Simons, who wrote “a bit of advice, watch your back from now on, emailed one such threat to Dr. Weide, “You never know when someone is gonna take that shot. It may be a bar or parking lot or even between classes! Oh what great fun. I’m white and looking forward to seeing you.”
Mark Kahanding, finance major at Cal State LA and the chair of Cal State LA’s YAF chapter, also responded to make the argument that this event was not inherently racist.
“You do realize an Asian made this event right?,” Kadanding asked Facebook protesters. “There are only 6 members. Only one of my members is white. Another is Asian and the other four are Hispanic. None of us give a c**p [sic] because conservatism binds us together, unlike you liberals who separate by race.”
Kahanding stated that this event should not be silenced because a college’s job is to learn about and debate opposing viewpoints. Cal State LA student Dylan Gunartne agreed with this view.
“As a student here at Cal State LA, I believe that we shouldn’t be silencing Shapiro’s viewpoint,” Gunartne said. “We should be encouraging other students to engage in this discussion—a discussion that has become a hot button issue in campuses across the country. If we can’t do that here in college, what’s the point of higher learning?”
Many students and faculty, however, have announced that this event is not so much an open debate as an attack.
“If someone wants to discuss politics, that’s great, but this is an attack on our campus,” Dr. Weide said. “There are conservative faculty here, including my colleague Dr. Bradley Campbell who even wrote about microaggression, but he was having a dialogue, not launching an attack against our community. This is much different.”
Cal State LA’s student government within ASI appears to have followed through with supporting this event, at least financially. The ASI finance committee approved YAF for a maximum of $560 and, after meeting to review a possible violation of policy in its funding at a finance committee meeting last Friday, they have finalized their decision to fund this event.
“As far as ASI is concerned, this club provided all the needed documentation outlined in our policies and the event is registered. ASI had already approved funding to the event on January 15th with the total amount of $560,” Antonio Canzona, the ASI Vice President for Finance and Chair of the Finance Committee wrote.
As the nation faces the same essential in controversial speakers such as Donald Trump, the core of the debate has descended to the college community: how far do the rights of free speech extend? Can colleges block or defund the political beliefs of their students or should they allow political speech, even if it preaches disregard for whole groups of people? The weeks leading up to the event will set the precedent for what can be said and who has the right to be heard.