Administrators at Cal State LA canceled a speech by conservative journalist Ben Shapiro after students complained that they feared for their safety and compared the event to an “undercover KKK meeting,” according to e-mails obtained exclusively by Heat Street.
But once Cal State canceled the event, they faced a massive backlash from students, parents and alumni concerned that the University was infringing on free speech. The Shapiro situation has since become a cautionary tale for campus administrators who single out conservative thinkers for censorship and cancellation.
Heat Street obtained e-mails related to the cancellation of Shapiro’s speech through the Freedom of Information Act. They show that two months before Cal State found itself in the national spotlight for canceling Shapiro’s speech, administrators had already begun to worry about controversy.
On Dec. 7, 2015, Scott Bowman, dean of the College of Natural and Social Sciences, emailed top administrators, including President William Covino, to let them know a conservative group on campus planned to invite Shapiro to speak.
“I think the students have the right to hear what he has to say,” Bowman said, mentioning that he had listened to Shapiro’s earlier address at the University of Missouri. “On the other hand, it could be explosive in the current environment. Nothing he says is hate speech in my view but his critiques of the Left’s obsession with micro-aggressions and various tactics of groups (e.g., Black Lives Matter) would be labeled racist by them, which is his point, by the way.”
Bowman suggests that Cal State LA “stipulate that he speak in a designated place where there are not unwitting passersby,” adding, “we don’t want to put him in a forum that will incite.”
Liberal groups on campus caught wind of the event and pushed back. Five days before Shapiro’s Feb. 25 speech, entitled “When Diversity Becomes a Problem,” a student, whose name is redacted, wrote to President Covino, writing in the subject line, “I DO NOT FEEL SAFE!”
“The fact that so many right wing conservatives that own guns RSVPd to this event makes me feel extremely uncomfortable,” the student wrote. “We should be able to go to an event without worrying about our safety. And frankly this event sounds like an undercover KKK meeting. This event in general speaks volumes as to how little our lives matter…”
After hearing from more students and professors who felt similarly, Covino announced on Feb. 22 that he would cancel the speech—though he publicly insisted it wasn’t really a cancellation.
In a letter to the president of Young Americans for Freedom, the campus conservative group that had extended the invitation to Shapiro, Covino said he planned to reschedule the event “so that we can arrange for him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity.”
Despite the cancellation, Shapiro showed up and delivered his speech anyway, to noisy protests. Correspondence before and after the event shows that the decision to (attempt to) cancel his speech was extremely unpopular.
Chancellor Tim White responded to Covino in a Feb. 23 email, asking for further discussion. “Unclear if your approval is normal protocol for someone else’s invitation… This one is on a slippery slope in the absence of fuller understanding,” he wrote.
The public agreed. Between the evening of Feb. 23 and Feb. 25, Covino’s staff answered dozens of phone calls condemning the university’s censorship. Many cited the First Amendment and free speech; some were calm while others were profanity-laced and irate.
“02/24/16 at 11:15 a.m. [Redacted] Censoring Ben Shapiro is unconstitutional. 02/24/16 at 11:19 [Redacted] Disgusted at the fact that conservatives cannot adhere to a public meeting without sheltering people. 02/24/16 at 12:36 p.m. [Redacted] ‘Honor the 1st Amendment,’” lists one run-down of the incoming calls.
Throughout the controversy, scores of emails also came in, accounting for much of the records reviewed by Heat Street, which exceed a thousand pages.
Even some liberal students wrote about their frustration with the university’s handling of the event.
One student, whose name is redacted, described being “very disturbed” about “a student group being bullied by a violent mob on campus.” The student told Covino, “I think your decision to postpone the event in the first place seemed to send a message that other groups are allowed to invite speakers and this group is not.”
The email continues: “It was not the organizers of this group who made the situation unsafe, it was the violent vitriolic mob who showed up to oppose their right to peaceably assemble who made the situation unsafe. … Well sir, I personally, as a bystander (who also disagrees with YAF and Ben Shapiro) feel intimidated by this mob and by faculty members. … I feel as though if I say the wrong thing by accident, even in agreement, I will become the victim of violence…”
Another letter, signed “an actual student with a brain,” wrote that the administration was “complicit in the intimidation and violence of your hate-filled and misguided student ‘protestors.’ What you fail to realize is that you played exactly into Ben Shapiro’s hands. Yes, the title of the speech was provocative; the point of which was for Ben to demonstrate how intolerant far leftists are to ideas that are politically inconvenient.”
An alum, whose name was also redacted, wrote that he graduated more than 50 years ago as the “Outstanding Male Student” and had continued to support the college since, even attending Covino’s first speech on campus. He vowed not to donate any more money to the University unless it reissued the invitation to Shapiro.
“The University should honor free speech and never offers [to add] a conservative speaker to speak when a liberal is asked to speak,” he wrote, skeptical of Covino’s suggestion to add more panelists to offset Shapiro. Several others wrote in pointing out the same double standard.
One parent called in on behalf of his daughter, who attended a Cal State sister campus and tried to attend Shapiro’s speech but was blocked by protestors. He threatened to contact his attorney.
Another mom, a Washington resident with a high school senior, called and said her family had ruled out Cal State over its cancellation of Shapiro’s speech.
“She indicated that she is calling on behalf of a number of mothers with high school seniors graduating this year,” wrote the Cal State employee who took down the message. “She said after seeing this, she and the mothers are all saying ‘hell no’ to considering Cal State for their kids. She also said word of mouth travels…”
Another person wrote in about plans to transfer from Long Beach College to Cal State LA, adding “I will now be changing my plans to another institution in California.”
As late as May, someone in human-resources wrote to Covino, asking for a full list of students “who are still emotionally and physically hurt by the speech given by Ben Shapiro, which they didn’t even attend,” adding that “my HR department, as well as industry Head Hunters and colleagues would like to add their names to a ‘watch list’ of potential incoming resumes to ignore.”
Such backlash is common, Heat Street’s review of records from several campuses has revealed. Mizzou dealt with outcry described as “a PR nightmare” during last year’s protests, while Virginia Tech also fielded a barrage of outrage after disinviting conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley.
Add Cal State LA to the list of cautionary tales.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.