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Ben Shapiro loses in free speech lawsuit against U of M

Ben Shapiro's famously punchable face made an appearance on campus in 2018, but that was just the beginning.

Ben Shapiro's famously punchable face made an appearance on campus in 2018, but that was just the beginning. Associated Press

Ben Shapiro is a licensed attorney in California who, rather than actually practicing law, spends most of his time shouting conservative talking points into microphones.

Shapiro brought his act to the University of Minnesota back in 2018, and played to his (overwhelmingly white and male) audience's victimhood. Because a couple dozen protesters showed up, Shapiro said, "There are a hundred police officers that were necessary to protect you guys and to protect me so that I can say conservative things."

Shapiro's claims of persecution were just getting started. Afterward, he joined the student group that invited him – Students for a Conservative Voice – in suing the university, claiming they’d stuffed the event into a too-small, too-distant venue in an attempt to “prohibit, chill, oppose, and shut down speech with which they, or other students and faculty, disagree.”

The venue in question was the North Star Ballroom on the St. Paul side of campus, which seated 450 that night, and was a quick 15-minute shuttle ride from campus proper. Students for a Conservative Voice alleged in court documents that a far more advantageous choice would have been Willey Hall in Minneapolis, which can seat over 1,000 and has quick access to public transit.

By relegating them to St. Paul, they said, their rights to free speech and due process had been violated, and many students who’d want to attend weren’t able to.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson threw out of the lawsuit. In her ruling, Nelson pointed out that things have gotten hairy at other campuses where Shapiro has come to speak. In 2016, he spoke at a California university, and protestors blocked the entrance. Students eventually were able to get in to hear him speak, but law enforcement had to escort him out after the event.

Later that year, his address to the University of Wisconsin was interrupted by 20 protestors climbing onstage with him. The next year 1,000 protesters showed up to a Shapiro speech at U.C. Berkeley; by the time all was said and done, nine people had been arrested, and the university had racked up a $600,000 security bill.

Court documents say security was top-of-mind for university administrators working with the students to set up the event. After much back and forth, they recommended the St. Paul site rather than Willey, because the latter had skyway access that might make protestors or demonstrations more difficult to manage.

The student leader of the group apparently agreed, and placed a hold on the venue. He did not – then or ever – inform administrators the group did not want the event to be in St. Paul.

The university only found out about any hurt feelings later, after the Shapiro event sold out. That’s when the conservative youths and their event sponsor, Young America’s Foundation, began a “press push,” accusing the university of “viewpoint discrimination” and treating conservative students as “second-class citizens.” The foundation started encouraging the public to contact the university’s administrators to demand a larger space.

The event went off as planned, in the ballroom, without a hitch. The university spent about $15,000 on security. According to a letter published by the foundation, an alumnus vowed he'd never donate another cent to his alma mater because of Shapiro’s treatment – which he called “a case of discrimination.”

“It was not discrimination by race or gender. It was more damaging than that,” he wrote. “You have discriminated against the free dissemination of ideas.”

In the end, Nelson didn’t think that argument tracked. She determined that the university was acting on legitimate security concerns, and had put “reasonable restrictions in place.”

“Accordingly, there is no record evidence that any defendant applied a University policy to [the student group] that violated their rights,” she wrote.

There are probably plenty of reasons for Shapiro and his supporters to be mad about that verdict. But as Shapiro himself is fond of saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”