Ben Shapiro addresses venue controversy, free speech in campus visit

Nearly 400 students attended Shapiro’s speech on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro speaks in the Northstar Ballroom of the St. Paul Student Center on Monday, Feb. 26. The speech drew a crowd of dozens of protestors in opposition to Shapiro's presence on campus.

Jack Rodgers

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro speaks in the Northstar Ballroom of the St. Paul Student Center on Monday, Feb. 26. The speech drew a crowd of dozens of protestors in opposition to Shapiro’s presence on campus.

Isabella Murray

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke to a packed ballroom of nearly 400 students on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus on Monday.

During his speech at the North Star Ballroom, Shapiro discussed the controversy surrounding his event’s venue, campus free speech and a petition circulating campus to rename Coffman Union. Roughly 50 protesters voiced their disapproval of Shapiro outside of the St. Paul Student Center before the event.

“The University didn’t really meet the needs of the several hundred people on the waitlist who wished they could come but could not because the venue is too small,” Shapiro said.

State lawmakers, national media, conservative student groups and Shapiro himself have accused the University of institutional bias for its decision to host the event in St. Paul.

University President Eric Kaler and other administrators said safety was their primary concern when considering locations for the event. Shapiro’s speeches have drawn large protests at other colleges like the University of California Berkeley, costing the school roughly $600,000 for security, according to The New York Times. 

Shapiro addressed the notion that the University moved the event to St. Paul because of the possibility of protests, and said the decision was an example of a “heckler’s veto.”

“We’ve been told that we have to hold events like this far away from the main campus because it might make someone feel uncomfortable. We had to move the event from venues that hold 1,500 people because obviously we don’t want to offend anybody,” he said. 

After speaking to the crowd for nearly half an hour, Shapiro fielded questions from multiple attendees. 

When asked about a student effort to rename Coffman Union, Shapiro said the name should stay despite the anti-semitic history of who it was named after.

“If it turns out that [Coffman] did a lot of terrible things, it’s important to recognize that people are people. There’s a mixed legacy for a lot of these people,” Shapiro said. 

The packed ballroom left standing room only by the end of the event. Students were eager to hear Shapiro’s commentary which was described as “fair.” Police officers stood at each corner of the ballroom during the event.

 “I wanted to get a chance to see Big Ben,” University sophomore Tom Fredrickson said, “His debunking of white privilege is my favorite thing he’s said. There was this one debate with these Black Lives Matter people, and he was verbally obliterating them, and they were speechless. It was a bloodbath.” 

University freshman Lewis Mansfield sported a “Make America Great Again” hat at the event, and said he wanted to hear Shapiro’s views on gun control and the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 

But Mansfield said he disagreed with Shapiro on some issues, like his criticisms of President Donald Trump. 

Spencer Brown, a spokesperson for Young America’s Foundation, said the venue’s capacity maxed out at 400 people, and there were 500 more people on the waitlist. 

“So, we definitely could have filled a venue like Willey Hall,” Brown said.