SALT LAKE CITY – Taking a page out of Berkeley’s book, the University of Utah ramped up security Wednesday for an appearance by conservative provocateur Ben Shapiro that drew vocal but largely peaceful protests.
Two people were arrested from a crowd of about 300 outside the venue as scuffles broke out between protesters and counter-demonstrators, said university police Chief Dale Brophy.
Though Utah doesn’t have a history of free speech protests and violence like the University of California, Berkeley – a liberal bastion and the birthplace of the American free speech movement – officials at Utah’s flagship college didn’t want to take any chances amid a climate of heightened political tensions.
The University of Utah leans more liberal than the rest of the conservative state, much like Salt Lake City, where it’s located. The city has had some unrest during protests in recent years against police shootings and white extremism as well as at a Donald Trump campaign rally.
The school aimed to strike a delicate balance to protect protesters and people attending the speech by the former editor for the conservative site Breitbart News, while trying to avoid a “police state” atmosphere, school spokesman Chris Nelson said.
“There’s no concern about peaceful protest, in fact we embrace and support it,” Nelson said. “What we’re preparing for is any violence, any type of clashes.”
For his part, Shapiro said it was “pathetic” that police were needed at his college-campus appearance. His 45-minute talk, followed by questions, drew cheers as he delivered a rapid-fire speech that touched on traditional marriage, national anthem protests and identity politics.
The protest, meanwhile, started across campus from the building where Shapiro spoke, carrying signs with slogans such as “Hate is not Welcome Here” and “Bigotry Kills” and chanting slogans such as “It is right to rebel, Ben Shapiro go to hell.” Organizers warned people not to be violent or destroy property.
Counter-protesters also gathered with their own signs, and the tension apparently boiled over after the speech began, Brophy said.
“This is what free speech looks like,” said University of Utah spokesman Chis Nelson, who said the school’s preparations were effective in keeping things safe.
Face masks and coverings were also prohibited.
Several police officers stood nearby the protest, and many more watched over the building where Shapiro spoke. It was surrounded by barricades and blocked by a line of police cars.
All 40 University of Utah police officers were on campus, as well as an unspecified number of officers from other departments, and professors were allowed to move their classes.
The public-safety cost for the night was about $25,000, though some of that was defrayed because the agencies helping didn’t charge full price for their services, Brophy said.
Berkeley, meanwhile, spent $600,000 on security during Shapiro’s Sept. 14 speech, which prompted largely peaceful protests. The city and campus have become flashpoints for the country’s political divisions, drawing extremist groups from the left and right and producing violence at four demonstrations since February.
It has led authorities to come up with new strategies to balance free speech rights with the need to control rowdy and sometimes dangerous crowds.
Shapiro is editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and has a popular podcast where he espouses free-market philosophies, supports the value of religion and decries concepts such as white privilege.
Nearly 400 free tickets for his speech in Utah went quickly Saturday after students waited in long lines, said student Dillon Clark of the Young Americans for Freedom organization. Clark said his group invited Shapiro to promote conservative views in what can be a liberal-leaning campus environment.
Earlier this month, students held a sit-in at the university president’s office urging the event to be cancelled in light of his positions on transgender people, LGBT rights and conversion therapy.
The Utah event comes a day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried what he sees as political correctness run amok on college campuses during an invitation-only crowd at Georgetown University’s law school.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah sent Sessions’ remarks to reporters at the direction of the Department of Justice public affairs office.
“The American university was once the centre of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”