UB won’t bar conservative political commentator Michael Knowles from speaking on campus because of its need to “uphold the principles of the First Amendment,” the university said in a statement Sunday, disappointing students and faculty who had called on administrators to cancel the speech in light of Knowles’ recent remarks about transgender people.
Knowles, a host for The Daily Wire and author of “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds,” was invited by UB’s Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter to deliver a speech titled “How Radical Feminism Destroys Women (And Everything Else).” The speech is scheduled for 7 p.m. this Thursday in Slee Hall.
Knowles made national headlines this week after saying that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely” in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday.
In the days following that speech, UB faculty and students petitioned the university to cancel this Thursday’s YAF event on the grounds that Knowles’ speech at CPAC incited violence against trans people.
Three UB faculty members wrote and circulated an open letter to UB President Satish Tripathi asking him to rescind Knowles’ invitation to campus because of what one of the letter’s authors, UB Gender Institute Director Carrie Tirado Bramen, called “Knowles’ call for genocidal violence against trans folk.”
Several other university-affiliated groups — including the Art Department, English Department and Graduate Student Employee Union (GSEU) — also issued statements in support of trans students and, in some cases, called on the university to cancel the speech.
David Schmid, an English professor and one of the authors of the letter, told The Spectrum that upwards of 2,500 people had signed the letter via Google a form as of Monday evening, about 48 hours after it was first posted.
“[It’s] quite impressive for a place like UB, where it’s often difficult to get people energized, but people are energized about this,” Schmid said. “People are scared, and I’m talking in particular about trans members of our community. For them, this is literally a matter of life and death. I’ve heard from a number of people that say they are afraid of the consequences of bringing this speaker to campus.”
The letters’ authors closed the form Tuesday, writing that it was “being formatted and sent to President Tripathi.”
In an email to the university community Monday, Tripathi said that UB was “grateful for the many meaningful contributions” made by LGBTQ+ community members but reiterated that the university couldn’t legally disallow YAF from hosting Knowles.
“When faced with the prospect of intolerant and hateful speech directed at transgender people entering the campus dialogue, I understand that espousing our university’s values and clarifying the First Amendment may ring hollow — and, indeed, feel wholly inadequate,” Tripathi said. “But let me reassure you: These values of diversity, equity, inclusion and respect keep us grounded. They guide our every action. As the bedrock of our university, they most certainly do not crumble when confronted with dehumanizing, transphobic rhetoric.”
Schmid didn’t expect UB to cancel Knowles’ speech but said that the university’s statement showed it was trying to have things both ways.
“You cannot say that you are working to create a safe atmosphere for all members of the community and at the same time give this bigot a platform at UB,” Schmid said. “Those positions are not commensurable. One of these things has to give.”
Lawrence Mullen, the head of GSEU and president of UBQ, UB’s queer graduate student organization, said that UB was “hiding behind” its interpretation of the First Amendment and “abandoning trans students” in the process.
“If it is really a First Amendment violation, and the University of Buffalo is sued, then get sued,” Mullen said. “You’re choosing to bring a fascist to campus. If the alternative is [that] you get to protect your trans students — and your trans students, faculty and staff know that they have a safe place — then get sued by a fascist student organization. That’s a no brainer to me.”
UB’s YAF chapter created controversy last spring after inviting conservative commentator and former U.S. Rep. Allen West to deliver a speech titled “America is Not Racist.” The lecture drew dozens of student protestors both before and during West’s appearance on campus. The university investigated three reports of harassment and several Yik Yak posts that threatened violence against student protestors. Then-YAF president Therese Purcell said she was chased into a bathroom in O’Brian Hall, a series of events consistent with University Police reports and security camera footage obtained by The Spectrum.
“Our YAF chapter at UB is not unfamiliar with pushback from both university faculty and students,” Connor Ogrydziak, the president of YAF’s UB chapter, told The New Guard, a YAF-affiliated publication. “Each speaker event sees attempts to suppress them, but we will continue to remind everyone that the First Amendment covers all ideologies, even those not regularly promoted on campus.”
Ogrydziak didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Spectrum.
Knowles was originally scheduled to speak at UB on April 26, 2022, weeks after West’s speech, but YAF postponed the event, citing “time constraints” surrounding the “need to hire security outside of the university” and “set final arrangements” with the Student Association.
Grant Ashley is the managing editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for NPR, WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.