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Conservative students push for Ben Shapiro visit after rejection by Whitworth University student government

UPDATED: Wed., March 20, 2019

Controversial conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News, addresses the student group Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Salt Lake City. The student group is now fighting to bring Shapiro to Whitworth University in Spokane and accusing campus leaders of censorship. (Leah Hogsten / AP)
Controversial conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News, addresses the student group Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Salt Lake City. The student group is now fighting to bring Shapiro to Whitworth University in Spokane and accusing campus leaders of censorship. (Leah Hogsten / AP)

Conservative students are fighting to bring Ben Shapiro to Whitworth University and accusing campus leaders of censorship, mirroring an earlier controversy at Gonzaga University.

Whitworth’s student government narrowly voted March 13 to block Shapiro – a conservative political commentator loathed by progressives as well as members of the alt-right – from speaking on campus.

A day earlier, Gonzaga’s College Republicans chapter announced Shapiro’s bookers had canceled a speaking engagement at their school, even though members of the club had spent weeks persuading administrators to reverse course and allow the event.

An online petition pressuring Whitworth leaders to host Shapiro passed the 2,500-signature mark Tuesday. It’s been circulated by the Whitworth chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a branch of the conservative Young America’s Foundation, which has served as Shapiro’s booking agency.

“We hold freedom of speech in very high regard, and we believe that ideas should be challenged,” said Madison Habersetzer, a Whitworth senior who chaired the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter last year.

“This is much bigger, for us, than just having one speaker on campus or not,” she said. “This is a real concern about who’s going to be policing what ideas we hear on campus.”

Whitworth spokeswoman Nancy Hines said the student government – the Associated Students of Whitworth University – makes the final decision on speakers invited to campus by student clubs.

Habersetzer said Young Americans for Freedom submitted its proposal in February. The club would pay to have Shapiro visit campus this spring.

Habersetzer criticized the student government for waiting weeks to vote on the proposal, saying such delays could make it hard for any club to coordinate a big-name speaking engagement.

Members of the student assembly voted 9-9, prompting the student body president, Tersa Almaw, to cast a tie-breaking vote in opposition to a Shapiro visit. She didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

Before the vote, Jason Chapman, the university’s director of student activities, had told the current leader of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter that Whitworth administrators had denied the event, but he quickly corrected himself to say the student government should make the decision instead, according to the student newspaper, the Whitworthian.

Hines, the university spokeswoman, said that had been a miscommunication. She referred questions to the student government.

Habersetzer said her club is demanding another vote and gathering student signatures in hopes of “putting together an initiative to overturn the policy that allows our student government to censor club speakers.”

Shapiro, a former Breitbart News editor who now runs his own conservative news site, the Daily Wire, rails against political correctness and “victim culture” and has been vilified by progressives for his opposition to gay marriage and demeaning comments about transgender people.

A Jew who has been critical of President Donald Trump, Shapiro has also been a target of anti-Semitic vitriol from the alt-right, which he has called “a garbage movement composed of garbage ideas.”

Some of his speaking engagements, including one at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2017, have sparked protests.

While public institutions like UC Berkeley and Washington State University can’t shun speakers based on their viewpoints or messages, private schools like Whitworth and Gonzaga generally can.

In a statement last week, Whitworth President Beck Taylor reiterated that administrators didn’t make the decision to block Shapiro’s visit.

“The decisions and views of student government do not necessarily represent those of the university, its administration or its board of trustees,” Taylor said.

The student government, he said, was tasked with “a very difficult decision that attempted to weigh two competing goods at Whitworth – the value of intellectual openness and the value of creating safe and inclusive spaces for learning and discovery.”

Spencer Brown, a spokesman for Young America’s Foundation, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday. In a blog post last week, he lambasted the decision to deny Shapiro as “cowardly.”

Even if the student government or Whitworth administrators relent, it’s unclear whether Shapiro would show up.

Asked last week why Shapiro was no longer coming to Gonzaga, Brown said Shapiro’s events must be “free and open to the public,” though Gonzaga was offering 2,200 seats in the McCarthey Athletic Center.

The president of Gonzaga’s College Republicans chapter, Olivia Johnston, said last week Young America’s Foundation was concerned the athletic center might not fill up, making Shapiro’s audience appear small.

Habersetzer, the Whitworth student, said: “Plans for a future event are still up in the air. We’re trying to figure out if it’s still a viable option to bring Shapiro to campus.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, to correct a reporter’s error in a statement attributed to Whitworth spokeswoman Nancy Hines.

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