Boy, this past week certainly has riled people up here at UConn! On April 9, Turning Point USA (TPUSA) founder Charlie Kirk and guests Candace Owens and Dave Rubin spoke about maintaining conservative values in the face of a society that suppresses free speech. Then on April 11, singer-songwriter and rapper Sean Kingston was scheduled to open for the UCONNIC Music Festival—at least until student protests led to a last-minute cancellation by SUBOG. The political trio’s reputation as radical provocateurs, coupled with Kingston’s sexual assault allegations, aroused quite the student outcry. Beyond the messy comment wars on UConn’s Buy or Sell Facebook page and the litany of counterprotest demonstrations campuswide, this week’s allotted guest speakers and entertainers have reignited a debate between the wholesale preservation of free speech and the urgency to protect our more vulnerable students. Moving forward, UConn students must act civilly in their support or rejection of guest speakers and entertainers, and administrators must consider more carefully the ramifications of approving campus visits for controversial public figures.
When I first heard about the guest speakers that UConn’s TPUSA chapter invited onto our campus, I was less than thrilled, to say the least. After all, Kirk and Owens have been associated heavily with the proliferation of white nationalism—most recently being cited as indirect inspiration for the Christchurch massacre—and I felt tremendously uncomfortable with the prospect of my university providing a platform for hate speech. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who held these sentiments, for several UConn student groups released statements condemning the event and conducted counterprotests on the night it occurred. Fortunately, there were no reported incidents of verbal or physical assault—an especially great relief following conservative pundit Lucian Wintrich’s infamous visit in November 2017. Yes, student spectators on all sides of the political spectrum conducted themselves much more respectably this time, and we must allow our peers to feel fairly represented regardless of their beliefs. But simultaneously, administrators and student group leaders alike should be more mindful of those who feel that certain guests and their central messages pose a significant threat to their safety on campus. Hopefully this event will serve as a turning point (pun intended) for UConn’s ability to satisfy this criteria.
Perhaps UConn is taking a step in the right direction, as it narrowly averted catastrophe when it cancelled Kingston’s scheduled UCONNIC performance. SUBOG’s prolonged reveal of UCONNIC headliner Lil Baby, a fellow singer-songwriter and rapper who lacked the mainstream notoriety of past main acts, already had bewildered and disappointed several UConn students. Then once they overcame the initial euphoria of having a more recognizable name in Kingston, the resurfacing of his 2010 gang-rape allegations only exacerbated these distressing emotions. Now, I probably wouldn’t have attended UCONNIC regardless. After all, purchasing a ridiculously overpriced ticket for the dubious honor of getting squished among hundreds of other students and running the risk of going permanently deaf isn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. Naturally, the aforementioned Lil Baby-Sean Kingston tandem made such a prospect even less appealing. I imagined that as other students bopped in the stands to Kingston’s bangin’ tunes, I’d be banging my head against the wall of my dorm, helplessly wailing “how could my university promote a rapist sheerly for the sake of financial profit?” As with the TPUSA event, UConn student leaders voiced their disapproval publicly and planned counteracting demonstrations. Thankfully SUBOG took note of the student outcry, cancelling Kingston’s performance and offering full refunds to UCONNIC ticket holders. Even though said student organization ultimately did the right thing, I’m hesitant to bestow too much praise upon it because it booked Kingston initially. Intentionally or not, SUBOG failed its constituency by not performing a proper background check or being more mindful of sexual assault survivors and their advocates. To any SUBOG representatives reading this: I’m sure you’ve heard this countless times already, but please learn from this disconcerting experience (again, pun intended) and do better moving forward.
Certainly, I’m heartened by marginalized students’ willful self-advocacy and administrators’ valiant attempts to act upon it. Yet I must address the elephant in the room: Why are these critical PR statements, accompanying counter protests and heightened security measures necessary in the first place? Well, it’s because UConn’s quality control in approving guest speakers and entertainers still leaves much to be desired. Ultimately we must maintain our composure and remain open-minded toward our fellow students’ sentiments—whether positive or negative—whenever we consider inviting contentious public figures to visit this campus.
Michael Katz is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org.