Large Crowd, Small Protest for Ben Shapiro

Conservative political commentator and columnist Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of Florida on Monday, April 3 after being invited by Young Americans for Freedom. Ben Shapiro is the former editor of Breitbart and the current editor of The Daily Wire, another conservative news publication for which he also contributes. Ben’s appearance on campus threw fire on the ongoing debate between students who say they are advocates of free speech and others who contend that they are fighting hate speech.

Ben Shapiro’s appearance is thanks in no small part to UF sophomore Daniel Weldon. Ever since founding a YAF chapter at UF in March of last year, Weldon has wanted to bring the conservative speaker to campus.

“I think it speaks volumes that even if the majority of people don’t agree with Ben Shapiro, they want to hear his thoughts, they want to see this kind of speech on campus,” Weldon said. The conservative political science major claims that YAF represents a silent majority of college students with conservative ideals that have had their speech and ideas suppressed by a loud liberal minority. Pointing out that a conservative speaker hasn’t been to UF in a few years, Weldon was able to get UF’s ACCENT program to cough up the $20 thousand required to get Ben Shapiro to appear. It’s a rule that public universities must fund liberal and conservative groups equally, and a slew of liberal appearances in the intervening years meant it was time for a big name, or maybe a few big name conservatives to arrive on campus.

On the day of the event, hundreds of students lined up outside University Auditorium to grab tickets, which were quickly sold out within a half hour of the box office opening. When the doors to the venue did open at 6:30 p.m., hundreds of students and Gainesville residents hoping to score an empty seat without a ticket were inundated by a group of 30-50 protesters holding signs and yelling chants at those in line. According to Weldon, they were there to stifle free speech.

Some protesters, however, disputed this claim. Timothy Tia, a member of the protest, adamantly denied that they were there to stifle anyone’s speech. “I think most of us agree he has a right to speak at the University [of Florida,]” Tia said. “We want to show trans students, palestinian students and muslim students that we support them.” While some protesters did indeed claim that Ben Shapiro was spouting dangerous hate speech that needed to be subject to censor, Tia claimed the vast majority of protesters were simply showing solidarity with minority and at risk groups targeted by Ben Shapiro’s rhetoric.

Regardless of which side one takes, it’s unlikely the dispute will be solved in the near future. More clashes between the ideologies of free speech vs hate speech are inevitable, as Weldon has promised that YAF will be holding many more events just like this in the future.

To see what Ben Shapiro spoke about at the event, you can see my Live Tweeting session from the front row HERE.

A radio version of this story was broadcasted at 89.1 WUFT-FM.