Commentary: Charlie Kirk Presents a Free Speech Conundrum for Which There Is No Easy Answer

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – As an old-school free speech advocate, I have mixed views on the Charlie Kirk event.  Over the years, my view has been, let these guys come on campus, and ignore them.  Or if you absolutely can’t ignore them, at least do what the Phoenix Coalition did and have a counter-event which debunks their hateful message.

But, as we have now seen, ignoring these guys doesn’t necessarily make them go away.  That’s one of the messages from January 6.

The problem with protests and trying to shut down events—aside from the free speech aspect—is you inadvertently amplify their message.

That’s a bit of what Sac Bee columnist Hannah Holzer did this week with her column, she amplified his message, got some of it wrong, fanned the flames a bit, and the Bee embarrassingly had to issue a correction after Kirk threatened to sue.

UC Davis was in a tough position.  After becoming the center for national attention when the Pepper Spray incident went viral in 2011, they have taken a de-escalation approach of not using uniformed police to keep the peace at protests.

That approach backfired in 2017, when Milo Yiannopoulos had his event canceled due to violence potential.  Six months ago in October, the same thing happened at a Turning Point USA event.

It is interesting in 2017—my reaction to the Milo event, at the dawn of the Trump era, was somewhat different than now.  Back then, it seemed to me that the views of Milo were best being brought forward, airing them in the light, where they could be ridiculed and debunked.

Six years later, after watching the toll the Trump era took on the country, I’m not sure I’m so sanguine about such an approach.  What seemed so ludicrous in 2017 now seems very different, as we saw what happened when right wing forces were empowered and extremists were able to gain a foothold in our mainstream political discourse.

UC Davis and its chancellor took a two-pronged approach in response to Kirk’s appearance.  On the one hand, they strongly defended the right to speak.  On the other, Chancellor May earned the enmity of Kirk and his supporters by attacking the message.

From the university’s perspective, the point of emphasis was “free speech.”

The university said, “As a public university, we must uphold the right to free speech, as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, even when that speech may be hateful, offensive or abusive.”

They added, “Our campus’s Principles of Community affirm the right of freedom of expression within our community, including the right to protest speech we oppose. UC Davis is committed to supporting a campus environment that is inclusive and respectful to people of all backgrounds and dedicated to the pursuit of deeper understanding through the free and civil exchange of ideas.”

May pulled no punches in calling Kirk “a well-documented proponent of misinformation and hate and has advocated for violence against transgender individuals.”  He took a stand against “this hateful and divisive messaging.”

He notes that TPUSA, as a registered student organization, has the right to reserve university facilities and invite speakers of their choice, and that the university faces a heavy burden under UC policy to deny such requests over concerns of violence.

While the policy does allow for a denial of a request if the speaker presents a “clear and present danger to the campus,” the campus “carries a heavy burden for such a denial under these circumstances.”

He said, “In short, while I abhor the inflammatory speech of this speaker, UC policy permits the student organization to invite this speaker.”

And so the show went on.  But at what cost?

The event was only made possible—barely—by the university going back on their longstanding policy of not deploying police at demonstrations.  Police showed up in riot gear.  That was just enough to keep the peace—barely.  There were some minor incidents, a few arrests, but the event went on.

In short, the event could not have happened without heavy police presence.  May argued that the standard for shutting down the event was extremely high, a “clear and present danger”—but doesn’t the fact that they had to send armed police in riot gear indicate that there was a clear and present danger of real violence?

The right wing will argue, that it was just antifa that showed up to cause trouble at this event.  But that ignores two critical things.  First, that the reason it was *only* antifa is because the show was backed up by the show of force from the police and second, without that show of force, the Proud Boys would have shown up just like they did back in October and this time, things would have gotten out of hand.

In short, Charlie Kirk got to have his cake and eat it too.  He used the university’s fear to be able to speak, he got to appear to play the high ground, and he got to attack the university as well and play victim.

In short, he has weaponized free speech.

Then again, two can play at that game.  The University used free speech as a crutch or an excuse to allow the event to go forward.

In her column, Holzer made an interesting point: “Ironically, despite shilling for unequivocal freedom of speech, UC Davis’ communications team denied not only my interview request with an administrative representative but also my request to merely submit questions about the event. Really, UCD?”

I had a similar experience after the October event—UC Davis simply refused to comment other than their canned statement.

I still think the counter-protests and media attention here is counterproductive (I say with irony).  Five hundred attendees is nothing to sneeze at, but that was no doubt amplified by the promised potential of violence and conflict and certainly the media coverage has amplified the message beyond anything the event would have drawn beyond it.

Would it have been better for the university to just cancel the event, cite the risk for violence, what happened in both 2017 and last October, to justify that fear?  They would have been attacked by conservatives for sure—but they were attacked anyway and it’s not clear what is the true downside of being attacked.

As Holzer pointed out in her column, “My overwhelming inclination is to demand UC Davis get ahead of the situation and uninvite Kirk. But there’s no legal basis for doing so.”

She also, probably rightly, points out, “Even calling for legal reform to curb the trend of fascists speaking on campus opens the door to First Amendment restrictions that could have huge, unintended ramifications.”

She quotes David Loy from the First Amendment Coalition, “The public university, as an arm of the government, is not allowed to discriminate based on viewpoints,” and added, “(You can’t) prevent people from speaking just because some other third party might protest.”

The problem now is how to deal with those who like Kirk have learned how to weaponize free speech to their own advantage.  Watching January 6 makes me much more leery about believing that somehow ignoring these problems will make them go away, but counter-protesting just amplifies the message.

I concede: I don’t have a great answer on this one at this point.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 Comments

  1. Walter Shwe

    People like Charles Kirk and the January 6th insurrectionists are great at playing the victim when it suits their purposes. The same could be said of a few of the commenters on this site.

  2. Keith Olsen

    “The right wing will argue, that it was just antifa that showed up to cause trouble at this event.  But that ignores two critical things.  First, that the reason it was *only* antifa is because the show was backed up by the show of force from the police and second, without that show of force, the Proud Boys would have shown up just like they did back in October and this time, things would have gotten out of hand.”

    That’s because ANTIFA DID SHOW UP.
    David, I can’t believe your spin, “the Proud Boys would have shown up”, but they didn’t.  It was actually ANTIFA and college leftists who showed up and broke windows, caused damage and injured a cop.  Stick to the facts.

    Then you write:

    “In short, Charlie Kirk got to have his cake and eat it too.  He used the university’s fear to be able to speak, he got to appear to play the high ground, and he got to attack the university as well and play victim.”

    That’s because Charlie Kirk HAD THE HIGH GROUND.  The leftists agitators had the low ground and proved it with their actions.

    “The problem now is how to deal with those who like Kirk have learned how to weaponize free speech to their own advantage.”
     
    No, the PROBLEM is the leftists who resort to violence and have weaponized other’s free speech as a reason to create havoc and destroy things because they can’t stand to let others speak if they don’t happen to agree with them.

  3. Tim Keller

    The sad thing is that TPUSA and the other right trolls aren’t outliers.   There is a significant part of the “conservative movement” that is based on hate and xenophobia.  Charlie Kirk is just profiting from that fact by repeating back to those people what they want to hear.   He’s a clown and we all have given him too many minutes of thought already.

  4. Ron Glick

    I think the questions that needs to be asked aren’t about Kirk. He has the right to speak on campus if he is invited by a student organization.

    I think the question that needs to be asked is why did these students invite this guy to campus? What are the goals of the group and how does this help achieve those goals? Are they trolls or true believers? Are they trying to grow a party or a movement or spread a message and how do they feel about all that transpired surrounding his appearance?

    That is what I want to know.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Are they trolls or true believers?

      Maybe “both”.

      Are they trying to grow a party or a movement or spread a message and how do they feel about all that transpired surrounding his appearance?

      “Yes”, and “good” (in regard to your two questions).

      My guess, anyway.

      The “real” (non-troll) issue (regarding transgenderism, at least) is related to “gender-affirming” medical interventions for minors.

      I have a different view of “gender-affirming” health care.  In other words, medical intervention which “reinforces” what you biologically/actually are.  (Which is also probably not a “good idea”.)

      Steroids come to mind.

      Personally, I don’t believe in “gender” (other than biological facts). Gender is not a belief system – no more than any other biological characteristic. (You might have seen some people who identify as a different “race”, which is far-less drastic than changing your “gender”. And yes, some of those people actually “believe” that, as well.)

      All of this is probably a sign of either confusion during puberty, influence of social media. or too much time on one’s hands. (As is commenting frequently on blogs, regarding the latter.)

  5. Jean-Jacques Surbeck

    I concur 100% with Keith Olsen above. Not only is David’s “reasoning” absurd (Antifa came because there was a police deployment, as if they needed that kind of excuse? Seriously?), but he doubles down by stating that the surprisingly (to him) large number of attendees (500) was “probably” due to the fact that they were hoping there would be some violence? How much more bad faith can anyone display? Did it occur to him that maybe such a large number of students attending indicates that a large percentage of the student population is thirsting for a message that is more conservative than the “progressive” ones they are bombarded with otherwise by a largely left-leaning faculty?

    David also downplays the fact that Holzer from SacBee played a key role by outright slandering Kirk and Turning Point USA, so much so that thee paper had to backtrack and apologize. Unfortunately, Chancellor May tried to massage both sides of the issue by clamoring his dedication for free speech on one hand, only to then repeat the slander spread by Holzer on he other. He should have been more careful. Kirk did not have his cake and it eat, too, as implied in this article: Holzer, Antifa and May all contributed to this fiasco by going overboard in their blind condemnation of Kirk.

    Finally, I have yet to find any objective analysis that would demonstrate that Kirk’s message is one of hate. He is a conservative, that’s all he is. But that’s not acceptable to the little fascist masqueradingt as leftists who want to run the show alone. God forbid that anyone questions anything they say. Free speech actually scares the hell out of them because time and again, when confronted with facts over their overly emotional rhetoric, they lose. That is the real source of the problem. They need to learn how to debate their ideas with respect for the people who don’t necessarily agree with them. But alas, I know I’m asking for too much: totalitarians can’t stand any challenge, so be prepared to see many more such confrontations.

    1. Ron Glick

      How do you know it was Antifa and not some provocateur  posing? Like Fox propaganda blaming Antifa for Jan 6.

      Five hundred actually went in? I saw a picture of the room on the news it didn’t look that full to me but pictures can be deceiving. Anyway 500 of 40,000 students is 1.25% of the undergrads. Its even less of the larger community. It seems the conservative brand continues to shrink in California. The Republicans in California are now a super-minority party.What argument can be made that Kirk helps grow conservatism in California instead of continuing to shrink the movement towards political extinction?

      You talk about free speech but on Kirk’s web site he has a long list of professors that are somehow unworthy because of some perceived slight against conservatives. The list is so broad that it seems laughable.  It includes James Comey and Hilary Clinton. You talk about free speech but Kirk also seems comfortable with cancel culture over others free speech. Sort of a right wing snow flake thing going on here don’t you think.

      Cornel West was on the bad prof list. I heard him speak to a full house in Freeborn Hall years ago. Many more than 500 attended back when UCD was half the size of today.

      I emailed one name from the list to a friend who has worked on both sides of the aisle in Sacramento for decades because we had a discussion about this same bad professor Thursday morning over coffee. My friend wrote back that its an honor to be on that list. Outside of Kirk’s bubble his schtick doesn’t seem to play well.

      Kirk is on a college tour I wonder how much he made off of his UCD show? Was it worth it?

       

    2. David Greenwald

      “Kirk did not have his cake and it eat, too, as implied in this article: Holzer, Antifa and May all contributed to this fiasco by going overboard in their blind condemnation of Kirk.”

      In my view, that’s his cake. He got to speak. he got to play victim. He got to have it splashed all over the news. He got to play victim again. Kirk wins.

      1. Keith Olsen

        In my view, that’s his cake. He got to speak. he got to play victim. He got to have it splashed all over the news. He got to play victim again. Kirk wins.

        Kirk got to play the victim because he was the victim.  False accusations were thrown at him by more than just the SacBee, there were others in Davis who did the same thing.  ANTIFA and leftist college agitators threatened and tried to shut down his free speech, again making him the victim.  But you’re right about one thing, Kirk did win and everyone who went bananas over him speaking made themselves look bad.

        1. David Greenwald

          He’s the victim alright, he’s taking his victimhood all the way to the bank. He suffered no actual harm, it’s his shtick. If anything, it benefited him.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I agree with you, David.  That is, Kirk himself is not the victim.

          If anything, the “victim” is increasingly the public in regard to both free speech, and (sometimes) the financial or other impacts that are resulting from “protests”.

          Sometimes, this does include impacts to protestors themselves.

          And increasingly, the “victim” is honest debate regarding actual issues. Of which there probably are some, behind all of this. (For example, “gender-affirming” medical interventions for minors. Partly caused by a culture and establishment which encourages it.)

          Like I said earlier, I don’t even know what it means to “believe” that you’re a different gender than what biology itself shows. (Talk about “evidence-based” conclusions, that some claim to believe in.)

          Few (other than “intersex” people) are “assigned” a gender at birth. This is not a subjective determination – even non-doctors are able to determine this (worldwide). For that matter, it’s pretty easy with most animals (including humans).

        3. Keith Olsen

          So David, if someone hurled false hurtful accusations at you would you not be the victim?  If someone tried to shut down your blog therefor your free speech because they didn’t like your message would you also not be a victim?

  6. Sharla Cheney

    Years ago, members of the Westboro Church was scheduled to come to campus and Hillel House to do their thing. Hillel requested that people stay away completely, including the media. No counter protest. So that’s what happed. I don’t know if the Church came or not, because I stayed away.
    Charlie Kirk is a conservative that has torn a page out of Trump’s playbook. He worked on Trump’s failed Presidential campaign mainly doing logistics for events, he supported claims that the election was stolen, he unsuccessfully tried to start a private school business and failed, he was suspended from Twitter after spreading misinformation and dangerous medical advice about COVID, etc.  He is a hustler parroting Trump/alt right talking points and does not deserve any of the attention he receives. We’ve heard it all before and he has nothing to add.  A much better strategy would be to stay away and give him a tiny or, better, no audience. I truly wonder what the students were thinking in bringing such a screw up here.

    1. Todd Andrews

      I gave $100 to Turning Point USA.  I will fight the cancel culture with every fiber of my being.  I will fight Antifa to the end of time.  If you do not condemn Antifa, you are very, very naive.

      1. David Greenwald

        I was just reading an article in the USA Today, this quote seems appropriate: “In recent years, Antifa has been portrayed by far-right-wing media, commentators and conspiracy theorists as a shadowy bogeyman intent on destroying America.”

        Also, why is everyone assuming it was “antifa” rather than Cops off Campus?

          1. David Greenwald

            The approach of some who indentify as antifa is not helpful, but I think in general their numbers and influence has been vastly overstated and they have been turned into a boogeyman by many on the right. To that point, the point I raised here, similar to Walter, is how do we know it was antifa rather than Cops off Campus that was involved here? Or are we just assuming?

        1. Keith Olsen

          The approach of some who indentify as antifa is not helpful, but I think in general their numbers and influence has been vastly overstated and they have been turned into a boogeyman by many on the right.

          Like how the Proud Boys numbers and influence has been vastly overstated and how they’ve been turned into a boogeyman of the left?  For instance how you posted a picture of the Proud Boys on top of an article where the Proud Boys weren’t even involved in the March 14th Charlie Kirk protest where it was leftist agitators who damaged the university and injured a cop?

          how do we know it was antifa rather than Cops off Campus that was involved here? 

          I would think that being clad in all black with black face masks and headwear with black umbrellas would lead people to think that.  But no, they weren’t carrying flags or signage that identified themselves.  But if they were ANTIFA, Cops off Campus or leftist student extremists does it really matter?  IMO they’re all of the same cloth.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            “But if they were ANTIFA, Cops off Campus or leftist student extremists does it really matter? ”

            Yes it does matter.

        2. Keith Olsen

          The approach of some who indentify as antifa is not helpful

          That’s kind of a wiggly response, you didn’t really answer.  That would be like someone saying the approach of some who identify as Proud Boys is not helpful.  You know that doesn’t pass muster.

          How do you feel about ANTIFA in general?

          1. David Greenwald

            I think it’s best to start with how I view the Proud Boys. They are classified by the Souther Poverty Law Center as a right wing, “hate group.” Part of the alt-right.

            You seem to believe that the Proud Boys are the right wing equivalent to antifa. I’m not sure I would agree, but let’s suppose that is true for a moment for the sake of argument. What concerns me is not necessarily the Proud Boys in and of themselves, but the rise of all of these right wing extremist groups with a propensity for violence stoked by Trump. I don’t see a parallel to that on the left.

            One of the points I was trying to make here, is as the ADL has pointed out, the term antifa “is often misapplied to include all counter-protesters” For instance, Cops off Campus is an actual group that is a police abolitionist group and they even have a website (https://copsoffcampuscoalition.com/) whereas antifa is more generally anti-fascist and not even a structured group.

            So how do I feel about antifa – I think they have become a boogeyman whose presence and importance has been vastly overstated by the right. To the extent I have any feelings at all for them, it’s that their approach and methods are not helpful and help to escalate the problem of right wing extremism rather than solve that problem.

        3. Keith Olsen

          So how do I feel about antifa – I think they have become a boogeyman whose presence and importance has been vastly overstated by the right. To the extent I have any feelings at all for them, it’s that their approach and methods are not helpful and help to escalate the problem of right wing extremism rather than solve that problem.

          Just as the importance of groups like the Proud Boys have been greatly overstated by the left.  And don’t you think that ANTIFA escalates the problem of left wing extremism?

          1. David Greenwald

            Maybe re-read what I said: “What concerns me is not necessarily the Proud Boys in and of themselves, but the rise of all of these right wing extremist groups with a propensity for violence stoked by Trump.”

        4. Keith Olsen

          But you are conveniently overlooking all of the violence being perpetuated by leftist extremist groups like ANTIFA.  I think there are many who see them as a parallel to the right wing extremists.

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            I’m basing my analysis on data – the parallel you are trying to draw simply doesn’t exist.

            Consistent with findings at the U.S. level, attacks by left-wing extremists are 45% less likely to result in fatalities when compared to attacks by right-wing extremists.

            “I think the data suggests that we should be taking right wing domestic terrorism way more seriously than many have done,” he said. “The ‘Fox News angle’ that Antifa is just as dangerous as the Proud Boys just doesn’t hold up right now.”

            Source

          1. David Greenwald

            Interesting, my view hasn’t changed much since 2017.

            If anything this is a bigger concern now than then: “My concern is this: the rise of the alt-right to levers of power backed by the official state is real.”

        5. Keith Olsen

           “My concern is this: the rise of the alt-right to levers of power backed by the official state is real.”

          I think the same can be said by the rise of the alt-left to levers of power backed by the Biden administration and the DOJ today.  And I don’t care about your cherrypicked  data because reject your data because my truth is based on my ‘lived experience’.

      2. Walter Shwe

        I will fight the cancel culture with every fiber of my being.

         

        The ‘real’ cancel culture is consistently being undertaken by Republicans, not Democrats. I will fight the singularly Republican cancel culture with every legal and non-violent means at my disposal until it has either been eradicated or upon my last dying breath. Witness the canceling of library books and educational philosophies that don’t conform to right wing ideologies in red states like Florida and Texas. The canceling of African American history and culture in those same states. The canceling of rights of transsexuals to choose what happens to their own bodies in exclusively red states. I could continue, but will pause for now.

      3. Walter Shwe

        David, do you embrace the approach of ANTIFA or do you condemn it?

        I can’t speak for David, but I can speak for Walter. I condemn any violent law-breaking actions of ANTIFA. How do we really know who broke windows during this event? Aren’t some commentators here making that assumption? If they continue to say that ANTIFA was responsible, what concrete evidence do they have that in fact that was the case?

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