JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Despite disagreement, dueling political events at East Tennessee State University stayed peaceful Wednesday night.
The university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter circulated a petition calling for the cancellation of an event hosted by a group of conservative student organizations over allegations of hate speech against invited speaker Michael Knowles.
Knowles said in a speech earlier this spring that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.“
“That’s not free speech, that’s violence,” said YDSA organizer Noah Nordstrom.
YDSA organizers decided to counter-program Knowles’ event by hosting a “No Hate in Our State” block party on the Quad, rather than directly protesting.
“This is a queer resistance against transphobic, homophobic speech,” YDSA organizer Aria Inaba told News Channel 11.
Down the hill, hundreds filled the Brown Hall auditorium for Knowles’ speech titled “How the Left Hoaxes Its Way to Power.” Knowles opened his speech by thanking YDSA for “proving his point.”
Despite the pushback from YDSA, the event went on as planned. No protesters directly engaged with Knowles, who is known for posting exchanges with protestors on his social media accounts.
YDSA leaders said their absence from the auditorium was intentional.
“We don’t want to feed into his hand,” said Nordstrom. “He wants us to come in there and protest and edit our clips into some viral meme.”
“We’re not interested in that,” Nordstrom said.
Members of the Conservative Coalition say they weren’t bothered by the counter-event.
“I’m glad that they had their peaceful protest up the street,” said Conservative Coalition organizer Madelyn Sefton. “As much as they’re entitled to their event, we’re entitled to our event.”
Those who attended the speech said they didn’t find anything hateful in Knowles’ comments.
“I’m not sure I could come up with a good example of hate speech. Except when you’re silencing other people under the auspice of tolerance,” said David Anglin, who attended the Knowles event.