Get ready because the drama that unfolded was explosive.
Imagine all the most avid right-wing Donald Trump supporters at the University of Denver packed into a room with many of DU’s most active social justice warriors. That’s what went down Wednesday night in Sturm’s Lindsey Auditorium.
The DU Young Americans for Freedom, led by President Matt Rhodes, is a conservative and libertarian group of students who argue for free speech. According to Rhodes, the organization has been subject to labels such as the “DU Young KKK” and a “terrorist organization.” In addition, Rhodes claims that club members have been “slandered by The Clarion” and “threatened with physical violence.”
I noticed a difference in attitude between President Matt Rhodes and some members of YAF. Though Rhodes clearly has conservative opinions that conflict with that of many protestors, he does want constructive discussions to take place between YAF and their dissenters. Unfortunately for Matt, some of the less-than-eloquent members of YAF are not helping the club’s image.
The YAF invited guest speaker Justin Longo to discuss the topic of free speech. But the event wasn’t just about free speech. It was also about American politics being so polarized by Trump, that conservatives and liberals can’t stand to be in the same room together. I’m not saying that every supporter of the event was conservative while every protestor was liberal, but the tension surrounding political connotations was palpable.
A lot of students protesting the event were hoping to encounter an ignorant diatribe of alt-right cliches. They were instead met by a left-leaning atheist guest speaker who made several valid arguments. He opened with a music history lesson, reminding us of groups such as N. W. A. and the Sex Pistols, whose rebellious lyrics targeted at the dominant authority of the time created cultural movements that we now associate with being cool. The speaker argued that by oppressing certain political beliefs, PC culture has made Trump into a punk rock star. I agree that by suppressing the beliefs of Trump supporters, PC culture has transformed Trump into a rebellious figure. But the direct comparison of Trump supporters to punk rock makes me wonder, what kind of cool music are they putting out there? And Kid Rock doesn’t count.
Justin delivered his speech with the confidence of a practiced orator, but his arguments were not that profound, especially for someone 34 years of age. My main critique of Justin Longo is that he doesn’t care about DU. Rather, he cares about feeling important and making a name for himself. It’s reasonable to cause a stir if your intentions are benevolent, but if you’re completely self-motivated, then your argument serves your self more than it does the community you address.
The speaker’s glaring sense of self satisfaction attested to his utter lack of integrity. Thoroughly amused with his most controversial assertion, the speaker stated that “hate speech is good for minorities.” However, when asked if he had personally experienced hate speech, the speaker said that he is Italian and has heard his fair share of “spaghetti” and “lasagna” jokes. I doubt the speaker has experienced the same kind of hate speech that makes minorities feel threatened. To distract from his lack of experience with true hate speech, he mentioned the writings of other minorities who supposedly support his arguments.
Though I agree with Justin Longo that all opinions should have an outlet for expression, no matter how ridiculous they seem, I doubt he understands the difference between free speech and inciting violence. In fact, he seemed to believe that it was okay to incite violence through speech. He did say that if you feel an imminent threat, you have the right to defend yourself. What concerns me is that the speaker didn’t say that it wasn’t okay to threaten someone’s safety. It’s one thing to spout racist or homophobic insults, but it’s another to directly threaten someone’s safety. If a club were to promote threats, a university should ban that organization. Unfortunately, though bigoted remarks aren’t necessarily threats, they do often make their targets feel unsafe. Therefore, if a university is forced to allow bigoted speech, the institution should counteract that speech by prioritizing the security of all its students and spreading a positive message to marginalized populations.
The event’s thirty-second question-and-answer format was a mockery to public debate. Supporters of the club were allotted more time, while dissenters were expected to strictly follow the thirty-second guidelines. In the club’s defense, the dissenters often went over the time limit and made their frustrations blatantly known. All in all, the right wing wasn’t the only side responsible for the mounting tension in the room.
Many audience members were able to keep a level head throughout, but by the end, the rising tensions had reached a breaking point. A young woman, visibly distraught and wearing a floral maxi-dress, stood up in the middle of the audience and addressed the whole room: “This ISN’T working! Why are we yelling at a guest speaker when we should be talking to each other?!” She stormed toward the door, but before bursting out of the auditorium, she turned back to the audience and declared, “We’re all just fucked up. As a school, we’re just fucked up!” And that was the conclusion of the meeting.
We’re all just fucked up. As a school, we’re just fucked up!
The University should not ban YAF and should let its club members continue expressing their opinions. As explained by Justin Longo, if we impose regulations on certain viewpoints, those views will only be strengthened through resistance. However, as the club should continue having outlets for public expression, dissenters should also be allowed to respond with their opinions, such as the belief that YAF is the “DU Young KKK.”
There’s a difference between a university allowing its students to express free speech and that university aligning with those beliefs. YAF should expect the right to express themselves, but they should not expect DU to agree with them.
Even by allowing students to engage in hate speech, a university is not promoting those beliefs but instead exposes those students to the public. However, if the University does allow this form of expression, then DU is obligated to state its institutional stance on these issues.
Now more than ever, DU needs to get the message across that it is a safe and accepting university for people of all races, genders, orientations, nationalities, languages, religions, political parties, and disabilities.
Though the ideals surrounding free speech are valid, the true purpose of YAF is oxymoronic. They preach free speech, but the second complaints come rolling in calling for the club to be banned, President Matt Rhodes claims slander (which is ironic because the guest speaker didn’t denounce the use of slander). Complaints calling for the club to be banned are different than an institution actually banning the club. For the club to defend its very existence with ideals of free speech and then expect protestors not to respond is hypocritical.
However, it is the protestor’s responsibility to respond in a non-threatening way. According to Matt Rhodes, members of YAF have been threatened with physical violence, which is not okay. Furthermore, the members of YAF want to claim themselves victims, over exaggerating certain protestor remarks as if they were all-out physical assaults. Let’s not give them the satisfaction of playing the victim.
So how can you respond to all this drama surrounding YAF? Join the club. Use the organization as an outlet to voice your most outrageous opinions. Whether you’re a 9/11 denier, pro-puppy murder, or believe every Wednesday should be GeneWilderDay, please troll– I mean, um — join this club and use it to express your most controversial beliefs. They won’t be able to censure you.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named DU Young Americans for Freedom President as “Matt Rose.” His last name is actually “Rhodes.”