Shawn Vestal: Gonzaga’s College Republicans left empty-handed by conservative Ben Shapiro

March 15, 2019

The College Republicans at Gonzaga University deserved better from Ben Shapiro. Or at least from his bookers.

After going to battle against their administration and rallying Spokane conservatives to overturn GU’s initial rejection of a speech by Shapiro, the conservative gadfly who thrives on being a victim of campus controversy, the College Republicans found that, in the end, it wasn’t the university that would prevent Shapiro from appearing in Spokane.

It was Shapiro’s representatives themselves, Young America’s Foundation. YAF rejected the appearance because it couldn’t agree to the venue being offered – the McCarthey Athletic Center, scaled down to just over 2,000 seats.

“It’s just frustrating,” said Olivia Johnston, president of the GU College Republicans and a sophomore from Spokane who’s studying business administration with an eye toward law school. “For YAF to just kind of give up on us and say, ‘Well, your venues don’t work so we’re not going to compromise with you …’ It’s really disappointing.”

I don’t have much regard for Shapiro or his university-victimhood schtick; it sometimes seems he’s more interested in generating conflict he can complain about than actually speaking to college students. He focuses a lot of energy on bias against conservatives in the media and in academia, and the initial events at GU fed that line perfectly: The administration rejected his appearance over concerns, in part, about security at an event for a speaker whose appearances are often marked by protests.

The rejection became a cause célèbre among conservatives, and was covered almost by template in conservative media.

Whatever your view of Shapiro, though, what the College Republicans did next speaks well of them. They redoubled their efforts to bring Shapiro to defend the principles he says he supports: expanding conservative voices on campuses.

They appealed to the administration, and worked through the concerns, and GU relented. As concerns were raised, the students worked to resolve them.

“Ultimately, in the end, they were on our team,” she said. “The school really was trying to help us as much as they could. A lot of people are blaming the university, but this is not the university’s fault.”

Spencer Brown, a spokesman for YAF, said Thursday that GU’s plans for the event did not meet the requirements for Shapiro speeches that were in place from the start. In particular, he said, Shapiro’s events must be “free and open to the public,” he said.

He said he wasn’t sure how the GU event would have violated that provision, exactly, but that the stipulation was there to prevent universities from charging for events, or putting other unfair conditions on Shapiro because he is a conservative.

Even while rejecting an invitation, it seems, YAF can find the victim’s angle.

Johnston described the problem differently. She said YAF had a clear preference for a room in the John J. Hemmingson Center that would have seated about 800 people. The university wouldn’t approve that room, but offered a couple of other choices.

The College Republicans chose the McCarthy Center, which would have been reconfigured for a speech accommodating about 2,200 people.

Johnston said YAF was concerned that the larger space might not fill up, and would appear less impressively jampacked than the smaller room.

“It wouldn’t look full, in their mind,” she said. “Is the content of the message more important or is a full room more important?”

She said her group tried repeatedly to persuade YAF to compromise, but eventually hit a brick wall.

“We ultimately felt like they kind of ghosted us out,” she said.

The group tried to reach out to Shapiro himself, via Twitter and other avenues, to no avail.

Whether Shapiro could have drawn 2,200 is an open question, but he gets big crowds everywhere he goes and there was a lot of support for him around the Northwest, Johnston said.

Her group had obtained pledges of sponsorships to cover his $30,000 speaking fee and the $20,000 rental of the McCarthey Center; students, alumni and others appealed to Gonzaga to allow the speech and wrote letters to the editor decrying the decision to reject his appearance.

“We really did go to bat for him and tried really hard to get him,” Johnston said.

Johnston and her fellow GU Republicans labored in good faith to advance the principles that Shapiro talks about so frequently, with regard to conservative speakers and ideas on campuses. They did not merely lob snark bombs at GU – they resisted authority productively, gathered support for their position to apply pressure on decision-makers, and worked collaboratively with administrators to make it happen.

Having succeeded, they deserved better than to be abandoned by the champion of conservative speech on campus.