JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Debate over what constitutes hate speech on college campuses is flaring at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) this week with the pending appearance of conservative speaker Michael Knowles.
Knowles, whose March 4 comments about what he called “transgenderism” during a speech at the conservative CPAC conference have drawn virulent criticism and passionate support, is scheduled to speak at ETSU’s Brown Hall Wednesday at 7 p.m.
ETSU’s Conservative Coalition invited Knowles and got university approval for the speech using the standard procedure. Another university student group, Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), submitted a letter to ETSU’s administration late last week accusing Knowles of hate speech and demanding that Knowles’s appearance be canceled “because he threatens the lives (of) all queer and trans students.”
News Channel 11 spoke with members of both groups and sought and received information and comment from ETSU about its campus speech policies. Knowles’s speech will go on in the 300-plus seat Brown auditorium, and YDSA members say they will host a “No Hate in Our State” block party on ETSU’s quad, practically within shouting distance of Brown.
“They just want a reaction,” YDSA’s Ella Barnes said. “And we’re about action, so we’re hosting that event. We’re not going to give them what they want.”
But YDSA is not getting what they want either, in terms of its demand regarding Knowles’s appearance. The group’s letter to ETSU accused Knowles of “calling for the genocide of trans people.”
(A significant portion of Knowles’s actual comments can be found at the bottom of this story.)
ETSU’s emailed response to a query from News Channel 11 said that all comments and complaints are “respectfully read and considered” but added that the university’s free speech policy is very broad.
“ETSU does not disinvite a speaker invited by a student organization or faculty member because the speaker’s anticipated speech may be considered offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed by students, faculty, staff, administrators, government officials, or members of the public,” that policy reads.
The Conservative Coalition’s Todd Rapp, Madelyn Sefton and Kyler Glover all said their interest in bringing conservative speakers to campus is to encourage spirited and civil conversation and debate over issues. Sefton, the group’s communications director, said she hoped people who oppose Knowles’s speech and his ideology would come.
Knowles is known for having Q and A sessions at his speeches — and also for posting his interchanges with opponents on the internet. In fact, literature ahead of the speech notes that “all attendees consent & agree by their presence in attending to be on camera and recognize they may appear on various social media platforms.”
“I think the Q and A part of the Knowles event is gonna be really crucial, especially to the people who protest but come inside to listen, hear him out and maybe if they still disagree by then they can get their questions answered,” Sefton said.
She also said she believes ETSU has been evenhanded in its protection of First Amendment rights on campus.
Elijah Moore, the co-chair of YDSA, largely agreed but said a recent tussle with the administration over the location of a drag show has him concerned that may be changing. Moore also said he’s hopeful that students who are tempted to engage Knowles in his Q and A will consider refraining.
“Anybody that knows anything about Michael Knowles should know that he’s trying to set up the bait,” Moore said.
“He’s posted stuff on YouTube and other socials — a lot of the conservative kind of talkers do this — where students who may not be super well-spoken or super confident in what they’re saying but do want to say something … he just makes them look silly and posts it online.”
Instead, he and Barnes said they hope the Knowles speech attendees are outnumbered by students gathering on the quad for a variety of speeches, along with free food and giveaways.
Barnes, a sophomore elementary education major, said she will speak on a proposed gun law in Tennessee that would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus.
“As a future educator it’s scary seeing the constant shootings that happen in schools and it’s discouraging to see that no one will do anything about it,” she said.
For his part, Conservative Coalition vice president Todd Rapp said he hopes skeptics will attend the speech titled “How the Left Hoaxes its Way to Power.”
“I think he’s more or less talking about how the left wins elections and how they change people’s minds at a very young age – maybe not change but you know indoctrinates their minds through the school system or through a variety of different systems that is ingrained in our culture and society today as a whole,” Rapp said.
“We’re stoked to provide all the students at ETSU with a unique perspective of the conservative movement and the conservative ideology as a whole,” he added, describing Knowles as specializing in “all things conservative.”
‘There’s a line that has to be drawn’
Barnes said regardless of what others say about it or what ETSU does, Knowles’s comments on transgenderism constitute hate speech to such a degree that ETSU should prevent his appearance.
“I think everyone should have their own right to have their own opinion, like that’s what the First Amendment is about,” Barnes said. “But whenever you start talking about acts of violence upon certain groups of people, there’s a line that has to be drawn — like where does it stop?”
Nowhere in his speech did Knowles specifically call for any type of acts against transgender people. He did say “men really can’t become women,” and that what he called transgenderism “puts forward a delusional vision of human nature that denies the reality of sexual difference and complementarity.”
Barnes and Moore both said they believe the kind of language Knowles uses, even if it doesn’t directly target people, can have clear indirect results.
“Just that quote from CPAC and some other things he’s said that transgenderism should be eradicated, I think that’s enough to define that as a threat of violence or incitement of violence,” Moore said. “And that’s the main issue. I do believe that he should not be allowed on our campus.”
Asked whether preventing one speaker could create a slippery slope toward arbitrary defining of who’s speech is and isn’t protected, Moore cited what he called stronger laws in Europe, including Germany’s laws regarding verbal support of Nazism.
“Other than that, they have a pretty widespread and pretty broad allowed speech,” Moore said, adding that he thinks the real threat to free speech comes in countries where the media loses its independence.
But the Conservative Coalition’s Rapp said the YDSA’s willingness to shut down the speech concerned him.
“I think it’s just trying to shut up the other side and not allow a civil discourse of ideas and I think that’s very harmful to the country, to shut the other side completely out,” Rapp said.
“We don’t agree with everything YDSA does, we don’t agree with everything College Democrats does and they probably feel the same way about us, clearly, but I think that the only way to better the country is to have those discourses and have them civilly.”
As for Knowles, Madelyn Sefton said his comments have been blown out of proportion.
“What he’s basically calling for is the eradication of the idealism behind it, like especially in protecting our children, who are like the most vulnerable and innocent, against such ideals as that,” Sefton said. “Not the eradication of all people that identify as transgender, that’s not what he’s calling for at all, because at the end of the day, they’re people too and they have chosen that for themselves.”
YDSA’s Barnes had a markedly different opinion, though both she and Moore acknowledged that had not sought out and listened to Knowles’s entire CPAC speech.
“Whenever I think of that statement, I think of transgender people not being accepted in our community and ultimately being shut behind closed doors. With that being said, I think if someone says something like that, the eradication of all a certain group of people that’s not that’s hate speech, that’s not freedom of speech.”
What did Knowles say?
In the interest of providing an opportunity for readers to decide whether or not Knowles’s comments rise to the level of hate speech worthy of him being banned from a university campus, here is a transcription of his segment on what he called “transgenderism.”
“The problem with transgenderism is not that it’s inappropriate for children under the age of nine. The problem with transgenderism is that it isn’t true (applause).
“The problem with transgenderism is that it puts forward and delusional vision of human nature that denies the reality and importance of sexual difference and complementarity. The problem with transgenderism is that its acceptance at any level necessarily entails the complete destruction of women’s bathrooms, women’s sports, all of the specific rights and spaces that women currently enjoy.
“There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing. If transgenderism is true, if men really can become women, then it’s true for everybody of all ages. If transgenderism is false, as it is, if men really can’t become women, as they cannot, then it’s false for everybody too.
“And if it’s false, then we should not indulge it. Especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely. The whole preposterous ideology at every level. (Applause)
“It’s simple. It is as simple as the advice Don Corleone gave to Johnny Fontaine, ‘you’re gonna act like a man. What’s the matter with you?’ We talk a lot about rights and rights are very important but so are duties and men have a duty to act like men. It’s not complicated.
“Some people, some people maybe not the people in this room, but in the online and television audience — they’re probably clutching their pearls at such a clear and simple statement. I don’t know why? Do these people forget? Transgenderism did not exist as a political matter. Until about eight years ago, when Barack Obama and some liberals in North Carolina introduced it through military policy and bathroom ordinances.
“Eight years ago, the notion that a man of any age had some sort of right to strap on stilettos and read a book to your kids, that would have been met with nothing but laughter and scorn by everybody in the country. (Applause)
“And then, a handful of devoted radical left wing activists pushed relentlessly to normalize this crazy notion. And the craziest part is the conservatives now want to meet them halfway. But there is no meeting halfway between truth and falsehood, between reality and delusion. There’s no neutrality.