A polarizing conservative figure with a history of controversial statements and positions is scheduled to speak Thursday at the University of Wyoming campus.
The speaker, Dennis Prager, is giving a talk titled “Why Socialism Makes People Selfish,” but the fervor surrounding his campus visit has grown to include heated discussions between students on everything from free speech to the way student government funds are doled out.
UW’s Turning Point USA chapter — a recent addition to the nationwide nonprofit, nonpartisan group active on college campuses across the country — invited Prager to UW, chapter president and student Jessica Leach said.
“As an organization, Turning Point USA promotes the free market,” she said. “And in essence, we disagree with the economic ideology of socialism.”
Prager is a conservative radio host and speaker, probably best known to college students for his online media company called Prager University, often shortened to PragerU.
PragerU produces five-minute videos offering politically or religiously conservative opinions on a wide range of subjects, including abortion, minimum wage, the Ten Commandments, climate change, foreign policy, race and more.
The Turning Point USA chapter — a recognized student organization — lobbied ASUW, the student government, for $10,000 to offset the cost of bringing Prager to campus. The funds were approved first by ASUW’s funding board, then by the senate.
This use of ASUW funds — derived from student fees — was one of the complaints raised by students now planning to protest the event.
“I don’t want any of my student fees lining Dennis Prager’s pockets,” said Carter Henman, one of the protest’s organizers.
But fiscal concerns are far from the only complaints lodged by the students upset about Prager’s visit.
“It’s literally about the comments that this bigoted individual has made about women, about black people, about Muslims,” said Hunter McFarland, another protest organizer. “And it is honestly horrific the kind of comments he has made.”
As ASUW’s director of diversity, McFarland is a part of the student government, but as an executive member, she is not allowed to vote.
Though McFarland said she had never heard of Dennis Prager before learning of the campus visit, she began to look up his opinions, statements and history when she found out Turning Point USA was awarded the full $10,000.
Prager has written columns alleging universities can turn students bisexual and others advocating wives who are not in the mood for sex should try anyway, writing in 2008, “Your man knows you love him by your willingness to give him your body.”
Videos on the PragerU YouTube channel have been criticized — often, but not always, by liberal commentators — for being racist, unscientific, anti-academic and misogynistic.
“And you can research all of this on the internet,” McFarland said. “So, Turning Point knows that this individual has made these disgusting statements about human beings before and they’re still inviting him on this campus, and that’s what we’re outraged about.”
Leach said Turning Point USA would welcome dissenting voices to speak during a Q&A segment of the event.
“We fully support their right to protest the event,” she said. “We only hope that they will allow the event to continue. We don’t want anyone’s free speech to be stifled, we don’t want a heckler’s veto to happen.”
Henman and McFarland, however, said they would be happy if Prager was not able to speak on campus. They said they hope to raise enough popular support to get the event shut down.
McFarland went so far as to email Leach, stating, “If you continue, you will have the entire campus against you. This will be another Milo situation.”
The email refers to an event at University of California-Berkeley, where a similarly controversial conservative icon Milo Yiannopoulos was not allowed to speak, following left-wing campus protests and riots, but McFarland said the UW protest would be peaceful.
“Milo was not allowed to speak at the campus,” she said. “And so, if we get enough people on our side, (then) we can actually prevent him from speaking here.
“And I think that that is honestly a good thing … I don’t want people who spout hate speech on my campus.”
Leach said she interrupted the email differently.
“I took that, as someone who is familiar with what happened in the Milo situation, as $100,000 worth of damage being incurred by the university and people being injured physically, cops being attacked with molotov cocktails and rocks, just violence in general,” Leach said.
She added, however, she did not expect actual violence and viewed the email as an intimidation tactic.
Both organizers and protesters said they have been in contact with the UW Police Department and hope the event will be peaceful.
“I also definitely want people to know that if they do plan on being vulgar or violent at the protest, that we don’t want them there,” McFarland said.