Though some feared violence during an address by conservative commentator Dennis Prager at the University of Wyoming on Thursday, the event was peaceful, protesters remained silent and the audience listened, laughed and occasionally applauded.
The event could not have been more successful, said Jessica Leach, chapter president of Turning Point USA at UW, the student group responsible for inviting Prager to campus.
“As an organization, we are very grateful for the graciousness and class of the protesters and we think that everything just went off without a hitch,” she said. “We’re just glad that no one was interrupted or tried to shout.
“The whole event was perfect.”
The event filled the 380-seat Education Auditorium, a 200-seat overflow room, and yet nearly 100 more were turned away, Leach said.
For a week leading up to the event, debates flared across campus, social media and Prager’s own nationally syndicated radio show as protesters and supporters clashed on issues of free speech, student government spending and methods of protest.
When one protest organizer sent a vaguely worded email to Leach hinting the event might be cancelled — while other protesters said publicly they would be happy with such an outcome — Prager, and his supporters on campus, said they took it as a threat. Prager added, before the event, that he feared violence during his UW appearance.
“This is the first time in my life that I fear that I will not be able to speak,” he says via email Wednesday. “It shows how much things have deteriorated on college campuses. I am not a flame thrower. I am a 69-year-old man with traditional American views.”
But Prager was allowed to speak. Protesters limited their action to silently standing outside the venue with handmade signs, most refusing to engage with Prager’s supporters or the media.
Carter Henman, one of the protest’s leaders, stood with others in a ring around the main body of protesters. Henman and the other students forming the ring wore glowsticks around their necks, signifying they were part of the group’s “safety team.”
“Some of us have volunteered to act as a safety buffer for people who might not want to interact directly or indirectly with the police or folks who are attending the talk. So, we’re here to catch some of the flak for them.”
There were no disruptions outside before the event as a long line of students and community members waited to enter the auditorium. Nor were there disruptions inside during Prager’s speech, despite rumors protesters would chant over or shout down the speaker.
UW Spokesman Chad Baldwin said no arrests were made and no warnings were given.
Prager began his address to the packed auditorium with a roughly 20-minute rebuttal of the labels protesters had given him during the lead-up to the event on Facebook, on his radio program and in communication with the media.
Some students wrote Prager was a “racist, homophobic, xenophobic, red-baiting, anti-academic, climate denying rape apologist” on the event page organizing the protest. Austin Morgan, a protester, defended some of these terms when he appeared as a guest on Prager’s radio program.
The labels were misguided, Prager said to the auditorium Thursday.
“What they are doing is they are completely undermining the fight against real racism, real white supremacy, real misogyny, real xenophobia and real racism,” he said. “That’s the irony. They are the worst possible source of weakening in the battle against evil.”
He said protests against his speech bolstered its message, which was “Socialism makes people selfish,” and attributed his treatment to the lack of God on university campuses.
“There’s no wisdom in the secular world,” Prager said. “The Left wants equality over liberty, it wants a godless or secular society over an In-God-We-Trust society and it wants multiculturalism rather than ‘From Many, One,’ which is what E Pluribus Unum means.”
Following the rebuttal, Prager spoke about what he saw as the failings of socialism and communism. The speech was followed by a Q&A session, during which members of the audience asked about political correctness and economics.
None of the questions were critical.
In a message to the UW community Friday, UW President Laurie Nichols said she was proud of all students in attendance for peacefully exercising free speech without infringing on the rights of others.
“Both those students who supported and protested (Prager’s) visit to campus conducted themselves in the manner I expected, showing respect for other perspectives while peacefully expressing their own views,” Nichols writes. “I hope that spirit will be maintained in discussions that take place in social media and other digital forums as well.”