Controversial speaker gives talk on campus

(Photo by Rob Bryans) Protestors stand together outside the education auditorium where Dennis Prager spoke last night.

Destiny Irwin & Rob Bryans

dirwin2@uwyo.edu & rbryans@uwyo.edu

Constitutional awareness this week has the University of Wyoming alive with campus fervor, political awareness and vocal concern.  Last night conservative columnist, talk show host and organizer Dennis Prager spoke at the UW Education Auditorium last night, Thursday Nov. 9.  The overflow of audience members watched the live stream of his speech in the Classroom Building.

Prager’s appearance was controversial on three fronts: student fees were used to pay for what some describe as a right-wing conservative speaker; Prager’s flavor of rhetoric; a threat of violence between ideological groups.  College campuses, due to a liberal bias, have stamped out conservative freedom of speech; Prager’s supporters argue. Others argue that Prager uses incendiary rhetoric that free speech does not include.

“We do not worry about having controversial speakers on UW’s campus,” Institutional Communications Director, Chad Baldwin, said.  “Of course each presents a unique set of circumstances.  There are certainly more provocative speakers than Mr. Prager.”

One of the UW’s major concerns when any speaker or event is on campus is safety, Baldwin said.  About 11 people said that safety and security of everyone was their biggest concern.

“We had no real credible threats,” Balwin said.  “Police had been in contact from an early point with one person who had threatened an anti- [Milo] Yiannopoulos type of protest but that has been taken care of.”

UW Police were present around 4 p.m., far before the event officially began.  Four uniformed officers initially arrived in two SUV’s with two bomb-detecting dogs.  The officers and dogs searched the entire area around the Education Auditorium, the west end of UW’s Half Acre Gym and the Sullivan Plaza, finding no suspicious areas.  Several other officers were on site at the steps of the building by 4:30 p.m.  UW had both uniformed and plain-clothes officers at the event.

“This event has been on the radar for the past two or three weeks,” Baldwin said.  “We had no different approach now than there has been for years before. If we had any indication of something out of the ordinary spilling into UW’s culture we would take appropriate actions.”

The group that brought Prager to campus is Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a conservative college group and a UW Registered Student Organization (RSO).  TPUSA titled the event, “Why Socialism Makes People Selfish.”

Jessica Leach, Chapter President of UW’s TPUSA, had a table in the Wyoming Student Union to promote the event.  The table featured posters of the speaker, stickers and supporters with information.

“In my opinion, I think campus can come together behind free speech and protest,” Leach said.  “I think a lot of the divisiveness is conjured up from people that disagree with us.  [The dialogue] doesn’t need to devolve to what it’s gotten to.”

There were no outbursts or discussions near TPUSA’s booth this morning. Onlookers were offered flyers and stickers, while some students engaged the booth; others walked by without any recognition.

“I’m hoping all students take away the same thing, that having [Prager] here is a huge First Amendment victory for everyone involved.  Having a political background or being a nasty person doesn’t change your right to free speech,” Leach said.

Not everyone felt this was the jumpstart the First Amendment needed.  Some felt the decision to host the speaker with the use of student fees was the biggest issue at hand.

“Prager is welcome to be at UW, we also believe in First Amendment rights but we don’t believe it’s appropriate to use student fees to bring speakers like Prager to campus,” Vice Chairman of Young Democrats of Wyoming, Robert West, said.  “Prager is a marginalizing speaker, his language and his words incite violence against already marginalized communities, student fees should not be used to support that.”

West said he was an advisory presence to the protest organizers and supporters; he has been a part of several safe and successful high profile protests before this one.

“TPUSA claims to support free speech by bringing Prager here but they don’t support free speech,” West said.  “They don’t believe in free speech for anyone but conservatives and their beliefs.  They claim foul when in fact they are damaging free speech.  UW has fallen into that trap.  They need to come out and say there are no speakers like this allowed here using student fees to pay for them.  There would be political and economic ramifications if they did.  TPUSA is capitalizing on this.”

The line for admittance to Prager’s speech, outside the Ed Auditorium, started around 4:30 p.m.  Protesters changed their scheduled location to congregate outside the Rendezvous Café in order to march to Sullivan Plaza at 5:30 p.m.

Leach laid down the ground rules for how the Dennis Prager lecture would proceed, prior to the event.  Leach asked for the audience to refrain from chanting or shouting of any kind and informed the audience of a Q&A session that Prager would host after his lecture.

Leach said, in regards to the protesters rallied outside the auditorium, “Because this is the University of Wyoming I think that they will hold themselves to a great standard and I’ve talked with a couple of their members and we have decided that neither one of us is going to antagonize the other.”

Laramie community members and UW students had these comments on why they attended the event.

Matt Murphey, senior Secondary Education social studies major said, “I just want to learn more.  I would like to learn more about socialism and I really also was interested to see how everybody acts tonight and so far it seems like everyone is doing a really great job of being civil and having different opinions out here, but not really engaging in any discourse with each other.”

UW Business Managent major, Jake Dalman, said, “We are protesting the man, Prager, himself and the use of student fees to bring him here. I don’t want homophobic or sexist remarks to be paid for by student fees.”

Dalman and his friend brought a large speaker on wheels with a playlist ready to go. “We made a playlist to speak without speaking.  Sometimes music is more powerful than words,” Dalman said.

Protesters wore glowsticks and illuminated their signs from below but remained totally still and completely silent.  One protester walked through the silent group wafting smoldering sage between individuals.

William Witt, associated with Prager U, asked protesters, “Why don’’t you come inside?  Why are you here?”

“[I’m here because] I like Dennis Prager,” Laramie community member, Julie Baker, said. “I’ve been listening to him for more years than I care to mention. Way back when he was doing religion on the line.”

UW student, Dimitri Nesbitt, said, “The protest’s representation is good for UW, our groups of friends and anyone with our shared identity.  This is about free speech. Our goal as protesters is to be visible, be proud and stand against hate speech.”

Chairman of the College of Republicans, Robert Kemper, said conservative speakers are less represented on campuses.

“I think that it’s important that students on a college campus hear from a conservative once in a while, because it doesn’t happen very often that a conservative speaker is allowed to speak,” Robert Kemper, Chairman of the College Republicans said. “[The university] saw a kind of protesting and attempts to stop a conservative speaker, you never saw that when Sean King came to campus or when any liberal speaker came to campus. It’s only conservatives they pluck out, so I think it’s important that students are able to see a conservative point of view.”

Veteran Kevin Lewis drove from Cheyenne to see Prager speak.

“First of all, I fought for my country, so the threats about impending freedom of speech, I just wanted to see,” Lewis said.

Prager addressed the controversy surrounding his arrival at UW, including the accusations made by the protesters to revoke his invitation. Prager cited his previous writings, videos and radio shows to rebuttal the claims that he is a racist, rape advocate, an anti-Semite, homophobic, xenophobic and a bigot.  Prager spoke about the many merits of capitalism, conservatism and “fighting the battle” against leftist ideas and viewpoints.

Socialism, which was the basis of his speech, Prager cited studies done, as well as recalled personal anecdotes that helped him build his beliefs that communism and big government are evil.

“Socialism spends the money capitalism creates,” Prager said in his speech.

“I definitely think that the majority of Wyoming would agree with him just because it’s a conservative state,” freshman civil engineering major Mariah Taylor said.

Prager received a standing ovation both at the conclusion of his speech and the end of the Q&A session.

(Photo by Rob Bryans) Dennis Prager speaks to a crowded education auditorium.

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