Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro was met with a standing ovation upon taking the stage of Rackham Auditorium Tuesday evening. Looking out onto the crowd, he thanked the Young Americans for Freedom and the University of Michigan for hosting him, as well as the protest group Shut Down Shapiro at Rackham Auditorium for their interest in his visit.
According to the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group on campus seeking to educate students on right-wing ideologies, tickets reserved for students sold out in under two minutes and were resold for up to $200.
Shapiro is editor in chief of the Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion website, and host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” a daily news podcast. He has been recognized as a prominent voice for conservative millennials nationwide.
Shapiro said he regularly seeks out perspectives contrary to his own.
“I actually like multiple opinions,” Shapiro said. “I am in favor of hearing multiple points of view.”
Shapiro’s discussion focused heavily on the threat of government compulsion. He said the current political climate champions a government that extends too far into citizens’ lives.
“When government is activated to invade the rights of other people, even for the purported good of the many, that’s when government is a bully,” Shapiro said. “That’s what we are seeing increasingly these days. The call for socialism, in essence, is a call to invade the rights of others, on behalf of yourself or on behalf of the greater good.”
LSA junior Kate Westa, vice chair of YAF, said Shapiro’s decision to accept the invitation to speak at the University was fueled by a growing movement among conservative speakers to promote right-wing ideologies among traditionally left-leaning communities, noting the frequent protests on campus and the recent movement to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Westa compared the University to the University of California, Berkeley, a school with a well-known liberal atmosphere.
“Michigan is such a powerhouse in the Big 10 for liberals,” Westa said. “I think that’s why a lot of conservative speakers are drawn to it. I think the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of leftist colleges is Berkeley and those kinds of places, but lately with the BDS movement and protests happening … a lot of people are realizing that we are going through a lot of the same things that Berkeley is, and want to come here and fight that.”
Shapiro concluded his opening speech by discussing how the restoration of American values was key to maintaining a unified social fabric, not government policy predicated on compulsion.
“If you want to fuel America … then we need to get together and we need to form a social framework without government forcing people to do so,” Shapiro said. “Then what we end up with is a government too big for anyone to control and a government that in essence ends up controlling all of us.”
After his talk, Shapiro held a Q&A session, during which audience members broached various topics, ranging from abortion to school lunches. A student asked Shapiro if he considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a violation of individual freedoms because it took away people’s ability to decide with whom they wanted to work or do business. Shapiro said while he personally opposed racism, he did not believe the government was properly situated to prohibit people from discriminating against one another.
“I don’t think the law has any role whatsoever in banning race-based discrimination by private actors,” Shapiro said. “If I don’t have a right to your services then I certainly don’t have a right to ask the government to require you to provide me those services. That means discriminatory people are not punished by government, they are punished by everyone else who won’t go to the discriminatory restaurant because they realize it’s discriminatory. They answer to the market.”
LSA sophomore Raj Aryal attended the talk. He praised Shapiro’s commitment to fact-based arguments.
“I went to the Shapiro event because I align with him ideologically,” Aryal said. “I really like his messages of having diverse opinions and perspectives on campus, and I wanted to hear a conservative voice … I feel that there’s a lot within the conservative movement that is controversial … I like the way he addresses his critics and how he leans more on the intellectual side of arguments.”
About two dozen protestors gathered on the steps of Rackham prior to Shapiro’s talk, lining the entrance as audience members arrived. They flew an LGBT pride flag and carried posters in support of transgender people.
Robert Jay, media director for Metro-Detroit Political Action Network, an intersectional civil rights group, said hosting outspoken commentators like Shapiro potentially normalizes the dehumanization of minority identities.
“It’s a great concern,” Jay said. “Anytime you’re promoting language that dehumanizes people, you’re conditioning people to accept dehumanization. No matter what reason, you’re dehumanizing someone. Once people get comfortable with that will start applying that to different things they don’t understand.”
Counter-protesters in support of Shapiro assembled across the street from Rackham. Among them was Batts Adams, a resident from Lansing who supports Shapiro. Adams said having conservative speakers on campus is crucial to promote freedom of speech.
“It’s a public university and being a public university and funded by the government, they should uphold the U.S. Constitution,” Adams said. “The U.S. Constitution grants every U.S. citizen the right to the freedom of speech, and so if somebody wants to come here on campus and they want to assemble and exercise their freedom of speech, they should be allowed to, whether I agree with or disagree with their personal views.”