Shawn Ness/The Albany Student Press
Students at the State University of New York at Albany don’t view their recent protest of Ian Haworth, a conservative writer and podcaster who has made provocative statements about transgender people, as a disruption of his speaking engagement on campus.
Rather, they consider it a demonstration of positivity, joy and support of LGBTQ+ students, meant to counteract the hate they said Haworth brought to campus.
“We support our trans students. That’s generally how it went,” recalled Mehr Sharma, an Albany senior who attended the protest. “People came, we sang ‘Party in the USA’ [by Miley Cyrus], we danced, we did a conga line. It really was a really joyous moment. I don’t think it was really about anger or hate.”
Sharma is co-chair of the university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, a youth arm of the Democratic Socialists of America. But the organization didn’t plan the protest. It came together organically, with LGBTQ+ students rallying to support one another and oppose Haworth, who was scheduled to speak in the Campus Center about free speech on April 4. Another Albany YDSA member, Maceo Foster, estimates that protesters outnumbered other attendees by about eight to one.
Video of the event, uploaded by Haworth himself, shows protesters chanting and shouting insults at both him and Turning Point USA, the conservative student organization that hosted the event. “Ian sucks,” the protesters shouted, along with “Fuck you, TPUSA,” and “Trans rights are human rights.” (Haworth has repeatedly criticized trans people, calling gender-affirming care provided to children “genital mutilation,” describing trans women competing in contact sports with cis women as “a threat” and denying the validity of trans women’s identities.)
According to the university’s description of the event, the demonstration prevented Haworth’s talk from proceeding as planned.
According to the protesters, they were asked repeatedly if Haworth could come in, and they replied “Yes” every time. They even had prepared questions to ask him, which they had brainstormed together during an informal gathering just before the protest.
That is to say, they didn’t feel they were the ones who stopped the event from proceeding.
“We started chanting, and [the event’s organizers] kind of rolled over. They kept looking at administration, like, ‘I don’t know; fix this for us,’” said one protester, who asked to remain anonymous. “They chose not to say anything back.”
Officials ended up relocating Haworth’s speech to another room in UAlbany’s Campus Center, which was “configured at the time for about 30 people,” according to university spokesperson Jordan Carleo-Evangelist. The University Police Department restricted entry once it reached that capacity, “primarily to ensure UPD could continue to control access to the space,” he wrote in an email.
Protesters again saw the matter in a different light. They said they weren’t told where the event was being moved and were barred from entering the new venue. According to the university’s police blotter, Foster and one other student were arrested for trying to gain access to the relocated talk.
A Growing Trend
The UAlbany incident is part a string of recent events in which left-leaning protesters have shut down or interrupted conservative voices invited to speak on college campuses.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Campus Disinvitation Database, four events this year have ended in what the organization classifies as a “substantial event disruption,” characterized by protesters interrupting an event to the point that it can’t go on as planned. In addition to Haworth at UAlbany, dissenters interrupted Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford University; Charlie Kirk at the University of California, Davis; and Riley Gaines at San Francisco State University—all within the period of less than a month. (At UC Davis, Kirk's speech went ahead as planned.) (This paragraph has been updated to clarify what happened at UC Davis.)
Last year, FIRE reported a total of nine substantial disruptions; none occurred in 2020 or 2021, due almost certainly to the lack of in-person events held during the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest number of disruptions in a single year was 12 in 2017, though counts from before 2021 are subject to change, as FIRE’s research team is planning to add cases they may have missed in the past.
A large majority of the substantial disruptions that FIRE has documented involved students interrupting a speaker they consider more conservative than they. And as the protest at UAlbany made clear, left-wing student activists tend to think about free speech in a very different way than more right-leaning activists do.
Jeffrey Kidder, a professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University who has studied student activists’ views on free speech, found that in a series of interviews in 2017 and 2018, conservative students lauded the First Amendment—bringing up unprompted how much they valued free speech—while progressive students were more measured. They said they supported free speech, Kidder noted, with the caveat that it should be limited to prevent hateful or harmful ideas from being spread.
“One of the motivating factors behind their activism is trying to make campuses more inclusive, more representative of a diverse student population. There’s very much an idea that speech can be harmful,” he said. “If you view speech not just as an interchange of ideas but that in fact people can be harmed by speech, it makes sense that you would need to shut that speech down.”
Protesters at UAlbany echoed that idea.
“I would argue that the way in which [Haworth] talks about trans people could very easily incite violence against trans people,” Foster said.
But just because something could hypothetically cause violence does not make it a threat or reduce its right to protection under the First Amendment—which universities have a duty to uphold, according to Sabrina Conza, a campus rights advocacy program officer at FIRE.
Many students harbor misconceptions about what constitutes free speech, believing that shouting over others is included in their First Amendment rights, she said. Such thinking was evident during the UAlbany protest as students chanted, “This is what free speech looks like.”
“If two groups of speakers were protesting on a sidewalk and one group was expressing one opinion and another group was expressing another and they were screaming and shouting, that’s one thing,” she said. “But when a speaker goes through a process to be given a forum, and then someone comes in and disrupts that, it’s not free speech. I think that that would be easy to understand for someone if they went to a play … and a bunch of people came in and started screaming or blowing bullhorns. I don’t think that they would sit there and think, ‘Oh, that’s completely fine.’”
Haworth’s own response to the student activists—a piece in The Washington Examiner, a conservative news outlet at which he is a columnist—stated that he “supported their right to protest” until “the event was not permitted to take place.”
“The true fascists on Tuesday evening were the students using mob tactics to shut down speech, drown out opposing viewpoints, and threaten their fellow students into remaining quiet,” he wrote. (Foster and other protesters told Inside Higher Ed that no threats were made during the protest.)
University administrators face a difficult task in balancing their obligation to protect free speech with their commitment to inclusivity. Stanford came under fire for not enforcing its free speech policy during the incident with Duncan in March; the institution later apologized and placed a dean who failed to enforce the policy during the event on leave.
In the aftermath of the event at UAlbany, administrators sent an email to students detailing the university’s role in protecting speech but clarifying that permitting speech on campus isn’t the same as condoning it.
“To be clear, the fact that the law requires the University to protect speech doesn’t mean that UAlbany endorses the speakers’ worldview. We know who we are and what makes this place special. We are a community that thrives on the diversity of its people, faiths and ideas,” read the email, signed by Vice President for Student Affairs Michael N. Christakis and Chief Diversity Officer Samuel Caldwell. “We unequivocally reject all forms of hate and bias, and we are committed to fostering a culture in which everyone is and feels welcome every single day.”
But for protesters, that wasn’t enough. Another protester who requested anonymity pointed out that when San Francisco State University responded to the backlash against the appearance of Gaines—a former NCAA swimmer who has spoken out against trans women’s participation in sports—the university explicitly affirmed its support of transgender students in its messaging. UAlbany did not.
“To not make that explicit is amounting to complicity in this transphobia,” the protester said.
Some students also wanted the institution to reaffirm its support of trans students in more tangible ways. In a statement released following Haworth’s appearance, the YDSA published a list of demands of the university, including that it provide more gender-affirming resources on campus and ensure that the university’s mental health counselors are trained in gender-affirming care.
Doubtful of Dialogue
Opponents of speaker shout-downs encourage protesters to engage in dialogue and debate with those they disagree with, rather than try to drown them out. But protesters generally don’t see that as a successful strategy; progressive students think conservatives are completely unwilling to listen or consider alternative opinions, especially on charged issues like trans rights, according to Kidder.
Moreover, some believe that conservative student organizations bring controversial speakers to campus specifically to incite progressive protests, which simultaneously manages to garner positive media attention for the speaker, make leftist students seem like extremists and distract from more important issues.
“We want to talk about trans rights for students, trans rights nationally and this conversation about what is a good way of protesting—that plays right into their hands,” said Sharma, the UAlbany YDSA co-chair.
Kidder said this claim has some merit.
“You do end up with speakers getting invited and the organizers of the events really being caught unaware that there was going to be a protest. But then you also have groups that are very much hoping to provoke that kind of reaction in response,” he said. “Inviting these firebrand speakers [is conservative students’] own sort of protest.”
If that’s what Haworth and TPUSA were hoping to achieve at UAlbany, the strategy worked, at least to some degree. Searching Haworth’s name on Google produced three times as many results in the week following the event as it did in the week prior.
UAlbany’s YDSA, meanwhile, is getting a slew of unwanted attention as news organizations cover the story.
One individual even sent Sharma a threatening message on Facebook.
“Found the little fascist who proved to everyone with their unhinged protest that your DSA group are absolutely worthless and that you are more aligned with Nazi Brown Shirts than anyone else,” the message, a screenshot of which Sharma shared with Inside Higher Ed, read in part. “Once again the Left proves to be the ones who need to be hunted down and driven out by any means necessary.”
That kind of vitriol likely won’t silence progressive activists. On the UAlbany campus, the Haworth protest has only spurred further action; a coalition of LGBTQ+ students came together to host a “week of action” this week, including a block party, multiple speakers at a student government forum and a planned walkout on Friday.