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When a conservative podcaster came to campus, students did not want to listen

<i>CNN</i><br/>Charlotte Clymer turned down $10
Charlotte Clymer turned down $10

By Elle Reeve and Samantha Guff, CNN

At sunset on a beautiful spring evening on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh last week, conservative podcaster Michael Knowles was burned in effigy. Police lights flashed on several street corners, and a firetruck waited nearby. Protesters chanted, backed by drummers. An incendiary device was set off.

The cause of the furor was an event set for later that evening, when Knowles was invited to debate, “Should Transgenderism Be Regulated By Law?”

Student protests like this one have prompted older generations to question whether kids these days no longer have the appetite to debate controversial issues on campus, and whether these protests are somehow different than those of the past over the Iraq War, the Vietnam War, gay rights, civil rights and women’s suffrage.

Knowles is best known for a single line delivered in a speech at CPAC earlier this year: “Transgenderism needs to be eradicated in public life entirely.” Knowles asserted that the idea someone can be transgender is “a delusional vision of human nature” and that “for the good of the poor people who” think they are trans, that idea must be removed from the discourse. (The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization say being transgender is not a mental disorder.)

Knowles said he only meant “transgender ideology” should be eradicated, not trans people, whom he says are affected by a delusion. Protesters at Pitt did not find that persuasive.

“Eradicating transgenderism is just saying, ‘We want to eradicate trans people,’ because transgenderism isn’t a thing. It doesn’t exist. There isn’t a trans ideology. There is just the existence of people who are trans,” said Pip Mostern, a trans student at Pitt, who was demonstrating against the Knowles event.

Chrystal, another protester at Pitt who did not share a last name with CNN, said: “If someone wants to inflict harm on you, are you going to debate them inflicting harm on you? No.” Chrystal added: “Why should someone be able to come in and tell me I don’t deserve to exist? I’m not trying to walk up to someone who’s Christian and tell them that they don’t deserve to exist for being Christian.”

Inside the building where the debate was to be held, Josh Minsky, vice president of Pitt College Republicans, stood behind his group’s invitation to Knowles. “He’s very articulate, he’s intelligent,” Minsky said of Knowles. “He should be able to speak and have freedom of speech. And sadly, that’s kind of being shut down in modern society, as we can see outside.”

Knowles did get to speak at the event, which was sponsored by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), after police escorted protesters out of the debate hall. The opposition to his appearance came the same month as similar student demonstrations against conservative speakers just this month at universities in Iowa, Utah and New York.

Last month, Stanford University law students heckled a federal judge over his record on trans rights when he came for a speaking engagement. The law school’s dean, Jenny Martinez, released a public, 10-page letter scolding the students for their lack of decorum. “Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument … but however appealing that position might be in some other context, it is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school,” Martinez wrote.

Martinez declined CNN’s request for an interview.

Constitutional law scholar Mary Anne Franks said that universities should give students the opportunity to comment on proposed speakers before they’re officially invited — and debate whether they’ll lead to valuable intellectual discourse, or spectacle. These events are often sponsored by outside groups like ISI, and for them, Franks says, spectacle can be the point.

“It’s a deliberate strategy on the part of these organizations to try to find a controversial speaker, try to provoke the liberal students into having a reaction, and making sure all of that gets filmed and edited in a certain way that makes those students look as bad as possible,” she said.

Franks is a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who argues that some conservatives and liberals are free speech fundamentalists who use the First Amendment the same way religious fundamentalists use the Bible, which undermines the integrity of the entire Constitution. She thinks that portraying the recent campus protests as threats to free speech is misleading.

“When someone backs you into a corner and says, ‘I don’t like your ideas,’ the easiest thing for you to say is, ‘Oh? Well, that’s because you don’t like my free speech. It’s because you want to censor me,'” Franks said. “It’s really the coward’s way of trying to deal with any argument. Your answer should be, ‘Here’s why my ideas are interesting, and why they’re important,’ not invoking some kind of quasi-constitutional gloss for what you have to say.”

Conservative groups including ISI and Young America’s Foundation (YAF) have been involved in helping college groups put on some of the events that have become contentious.

YAF has posted videos on YouTube with titles such as “LOL: Michael Knowles SCHOOLS Woke Student Who Claimed Transgenderism Is Indigenous,” and “EPIC TAKEDOWN: Matt Walsh CRUSHES Woke Student Who Claims Gender Affirming Care Is ‘Life-Saving.'”

YAF spokesperson Michael McGonigle said it was not his organization’s strategy to make students who disagreed with their ideas look bad. “Our strategy is to bring engaging speakers onto campus with different viewpoints, and that students want to hear from,” McGonigle said. “Folks like Ben Shapiro, or Michael Knowles, or Matt Walsh, they have kind of a standing rule in that they ask for anybody that has a differing viewpoint to be brought to the front of the line so that they can engage in a conversation with them. They want to engage in healthy exchange of ideas.”

Johnny Burtka, president of the Delaware-based non-profit ISI, said: “We do not have an institutional strategy to provoke backlash from liberal students.” Most of ISI’s events were not about social issues, and did not spark protest, he said. “We have interesting speakers. Sometimes they’re provocative speakers, but they’re wrestling with important questions.”

At Pitt, Knowles was scheduled to appear with Deirdre McCloskey, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and trans woman. But a week before the event, McCloskey pulled out. She told CNN, “He’s not a serious person on these matters. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s an agitator. He wants to arouse hatred.”

McCloskey criticized students who did not want Knowles to speak at all, and she drew a distinction between not wanting him to speak and not wanting to debate him.

“It’s the old problem: Do you debate White nationalists? Do you debate fascists? Do you debate communists, for that matter?” she said. “The trouble is that if you do, you convey the feeling that they have something to say which you take seriously. I don’t take seriously his opinions.”

After McCloskey dropped out, ISI offered trans writer Charlotte Clymer $10,000 to debate Knowles.

Clymer said no, explaining that she did not believe Knowles would engage in good faith but try to provoke an emotional reaction. “If he can get me to look angry, he’s won already,” she said. “His goal is to get viral videos of people who get angry with him, and then use those for his own profit. If he can make people who aren’t comfortable with trans folks feel entertained, they’ll give him money.”

Finally, gay libertarian podcaster Brad Polumbo agreed to debate Knowles. Asked by a Pitt student how much he got paid, Polumbo said “a lot” and rubbed his fingers together.

In an essay published by Newsweek after the event, Polumbo called the protesters a mob and said that he was scared for his life. Polumbo wrote, “I ended up dispensing with my planned introduction and instead ad-libbing an admonition to those who sought to shut down the debate to ‘grow the hell up.'”

The essay did not discuss the substance of the debate, though Polumbo noted, “I was quite literally there to defend trans rights.”

Knowles, through a spokesperson, declined CNN’s request for an interview.

After the event, he tweeted about the protesters, or retweeted tweets about them, more than 20 times. ISI tweeted, “The protestors tried to stop it but @michaeljknowles and @brad_polumbo did not back down.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Johnny Burtka’s last name.

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