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Free Speech, Safe Spaces Hot Topics at Politicon

PASADENA, Calif. — The unconventional convention Politicon brought together political wonks and fans from all over the country for a full weekend of panels, debates, art and entertainment. A debate sponsored by Turning Point USA, a non-profit organization that promotes conservative grassroots activism, sparked both praise and criticism of safe spaces on college campuses.

The wave of student protests over the past academic year as a result of conservative speakers being invited to college campuses served as an opening focal point for the debate. Among the incidents cited were administrators at De Paul University banning conservative speaker and author Ben Shapiro from entering the campus and Ann Coulter losing a speaking engagement at the University of California at Berkeley after officials informed her that they could not accommodate her due to threats of violence.

Turning Point USA Executive Director Charlie Kirk took on The Young Turks’ host Hasan Piker on the necessity of safe spaces and the idea that conservatism deserves a place in academia in a session moderated by the bipartisan Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara.

“College campuses represent a microcosm of American society,” Piker said. “Definitions of safe spaces are not narrow and … conservatives are claiming that liberals are looking for safe spaces yet believe they are victims because they are less popular. Free speech allows people to say what they want but it does not make people more popular.”

Kirk, who said he had not attended college, agreed with Piker that conservative speakers such as Shapiro should be able to speak at campuses that will host them. It was pointed out, however, that when colleges promote intellectual diversity, higher education administrators still are responsible for serving the best interests and safety of students.

“Should college administrators not listen to what the students want?” asked Piker. “Every speaker has the right to exercise their free speech rights. If there a divisive speaker that wants to come to a campus, administrators have to decide whether to put up money to protect an extremist speaker when students protest their appearance.”

Piker indicated that he was at Rutgers University when freshman Tyler Clementi was cyber bullied for being gay by his dorm roommate and committed suicide in 2010. “After that happened the Rainbow perspective housing dorms were created at Rutgers,” said Piker. “If you have been discriminated against your entire life and then enroll at a diverse college where people should tolerate you and then be bullied by your roommate for something you cannot change . . .  A safe space would have saved his life.”

Kirk rejected Piker’s justification for safe spaces on college campus. “There is a difference between a space where students can go receive mental health treatment and a space that is discriminatory and creates a culture that is inherently for students that are offended by something because they experience trigger words and microaggressions and complain they need a safe space.”

The debate was packed with both conservative and liberal onlookers, particularly young people and college students. While carrying a hardbound copy of the U.S. Constitution, College of the Desert student Crystal Pasztor said that she wished the debate wasn’t peppered with petty attacks on each other.

“I came here to learn something. Although I learned a couple of things about what Kirk and Piker individually do, there was not enough about conservatives’ views or progressives’ views,” she said. “I love Hasan and watch The Young Turks but debates should not be about personal attacks. Debates like this should use official rules that have timed responses and rebuttals so people can take away more of the issues.”

MSNBC contributor and Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication professor Dr. Jason Johnson referred to Politicon as an explosion of “political fandom.”

“As a first-time attendee, I wanted to see what happens when you have rival political parties in the same space,” said Johnson, who also noted that students should be versed in politics when pursuing journalism. “I do think that students should be more informed about politics [when they] are pursuing journalism and I found that they are not. It is not [an] HBCU issue, it’s a preparedness issue. What I bring back to the classroom to teach political communication is making sure students have some sense of humanity at the center of why you are pursuing this line of work.”

Jamal Evan Mazyck, Ed.D. can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmbeyond7

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