The interruptions--mostly chants of "Shame!" and "Safety!"--began right away prompting Shapiro to crack, "At least wait until I say something that offends you before being offended." His supporters shouted "U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!" About fifteen minutes in, the protesters gathered in front of the stage shouting "Safety!" answered by cries from the audience of "Free speech matters!"
Shapiro scrawled the word "MORONS" on the blackboard behind him. His supporters cheered. Police prodded the protesters to exit. As they headed out, a few shouted, "Fuck white supremacy!" Shapiro responded with a double-barreled middle-finger salute. The disruptions lasted less than half an hour. The protesters skipped the rest of Shapiro's talk, including the question-and-answer period, where they could have challenged what he had to say.
Let us try to understand the perspective of these student protesters. They came to oppose what they see as a noxious message, to assert the right of students at their university to a safe space, as free as possible from "hate speech."
Shapiro, who edits The Daily Wire website, contributes to the National Review, writes a syndicated column and best-selling books, and produces a popular podcast, proved an irresistible target. A gleeful provocateur, he argues that the political left is a bunch of crybabies--eager, for instance, to blame white privilege for all "inequity of outcomes." (At the start of his talk, Shapiro produced a diaper for his critics.) His speaking fee, said to be "around $15,000," was paid in large part with a grant from the national arm of Young America's Foundation, the student group that sponsored his talk. About $4,000 of the total came from student fees.
One of the protesters, Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II, a UW-Madison junior and member of the Black Liberation Action Coalition, later told The Capital Times newspaper, "I don't trust that the people in that room will understand what he's saying. What I mean by that is they may feel empowered by his speech to hang nooses from the balcony of a frat house, call black people names on the street, or make fun of LGBT members."
According to de la Cruz, speech that threatens others' feelings or constitutes racism should not be allowed: "I think that's when it comes into hate speech." He added, "As a rapper, of course, I wouldn't like my speech to be limited just because I say something offensive."
Don't laugh. Not all offensive speech is hate speech. There are certain kinds of speech that the First Amendment does not protect. Threats. Fighting words. Defamation. Harassment. But when the issue is hurt feelings, attempts to restrict who is allowed to say what are doomed to incoherence. To begin, who gets to decide?
In February, about 150 of 1,500 protesters rioted at the University of California Berkeley to keep Milo Yiannopoulos, then an editor at Breitbart, from corrupting young minds. That same campus, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, sought to reschedule a speech by rightwing attack dog Ann Coulter over security concerns; she refused, instead rushing to proclaim herself a victim: "I'm so sorry for free speech [being] crushed by thugs." A professor at Middlebury College in Vermont was injured in a student protest over a talk by Charles Murray...