A helicopter hummed overhead and barricades ringed the student center where Ben Shapiro spoke on his Monday night visit to the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.
A couple dozen protestors assembled outside to greet the conservative speaker with a familiar refrain of protest chants and charges of fascism. While the turnout was meager, security was tight, with the police geared up for a scenario similar to Shapiro’s visit to Berkeley in September, which drew hundreds of protestors and led to nine arrests.
“We’re besieged because of our views,” said student Abdi Mohamed, who was unable to get into the event. “We have to have this militaristic guard just to share a couple opinions.”
Those protestors who did show up were met by a flock of press, with local news outlets vying for quotes from each sign-toting student. After a few rounds of chanting, the group started to march about the St. Paul campus, and unceremoniously disseminated.
The U’s decision to host Shapiro on the St. Paul campus garnered controversy from the start, with conservatives saying it exemplified the university’s bias against conservative viewpoints. The university maintained the decision was made for safety reasons, a position echoed by their martial approach with the security.
“There are a hundred police officers," Shapiro told a full house of 400, "that were necessary to protect you guys and to protect me so that I can say conservative things."
Protests against Shapiro and other controversial — usually conservative — speakers in recent years have fueled debates about the much-maligned “liberal intolerance” of college students. Some point the finger at universities for not doing enough to enshrine free speech on campus, while others have alleged professors are indoctrinating their students with fragile liberal points of view.
According to a 2016 report by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA looking at opinions spanning 50 years, hostility toward unfiltered free speech is on the rise among incoming college freshman. The reasons, however, have less to do with coddling universities and indoctrinating professors, and instead reflect trends seen on both sides of the political spectrum.
“What we’re seeing on college campuses mirrors what we’re seeing in broader society and the broader political system,” says Paul Goren, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
Twice as many students today believe colleges have the right to prohibit “extreme” speakers from campus as thought that in the 1970s, according to the 2016 report, which collected data from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country. The survey also found the share of students who believe colleges should prohibit racist and sexist speech on campus has increased from 59 percent of students in 1992 to 71 percent in 2015.
As the nation has become more ideologically polarized, accepted standards of what constitutes "moderate" viewpoints have crept further toward the political fringes, according to Goren. Some speakers who garner controversy when they come to a campus today espouse viewpoints that would’ve once been considered extreme.
Indeed, the speakers invited to campus by the U of M's conservative student groups fit a pattern of provocative views. Shapiro, for his part, has claimed that "more than half" of all Muslims on Earth are "radicalized." Lauren Southern, whose visit to the University in October sparked protests leading to one arrest, had previously traveled to Italy to personally help block refugee boats from reaching the shore. In February 2016, notorious (and since-disgraced) conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was met also with disruptive tactics.
“People get way too comfortable supporting Ben Shapiro because he has been labeled as a mainstream conservative,” said Jackson Bianchi, a freshman at the U and member of Students for a Democratic Society, a student group that organized the protest. “These conservative groups have been lulled into a feeling of safety in inviting him.”
Goren says some right-wing speakers try to deliberately provoke leftists, creating a feedback loop wherein increasingly provocative speech foments outrage and leads to protests, playing into the hands of conservatives who decry college campuses as havens for liberal thought.
“It’s a good way to get sympathy for people of conservative sensibilities who might not be involved in politics, or feel they have a dog in this fight,” says Goren. “But, when they hear conservative speakers are being shouted down, that’s a good recruitment tool.”
Their efforts have already inspired legislative action. In response to the controversy surrounding Shapiro’s visit, State Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) and State Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) introduced a so-called “campus neutrality” bill that would force public universities to approach all viewpoints objectively -- and also curtail what professors are allowed to say in class.
It wasn’t always this way. Over time, college students have gone from the most tolerant of any age group toward free speech to the least tolerant. In 1976, 84 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds with some college education supported allowing racists to speak publicly, according to the General Social Survey, an annual psychological survey conducted by the University of Chicago. In 2016, support among the same group was 56 percent.
“Any opinions that directly impact marginalized communities should not be allowed on campus,” says Karen Xu, a freshman student who protested Shapiro's appearance Monday night.
Shifting demographics and the advent of the internet have likely played a role in changing attitudes. There are more women and nonwhite students in college than in any previous generation. The national incoming freshman class of 1971 was 90 percent white, according to the Higher Education Research Institute report. In 2015, fewer than three out of five students identified as white, and women make up a majority of the overall student body in America, an inversion that occurred over the past half-century.
Aside from the demographic change, Goren says the main force driving attitudinal changes among college students today is how the internet, especially social media, has shaped — or, in some cases, limited — students' exposure to alternative points of view.
“Younger people are just not used to hearing these divergent opinions, so when they hear someone wanting to make some sort of controversial claim, they just want to shut it down,” says Harry Boyte, a senior scholar in public work philosophy at Augsburg University. “If you don’t know how to deal with people you think are oppressive, wrong, prejudiced, besides to think of them as the enemy … they’re seen as evil, and the only way students learn how to deal with what they think of as evil is to destroy it.”