Conservative activist Ben Shapiro loses Free Speech lawsuit against the University of Minnesota

First posted October 24, 2020 9:44am EDT
Last updated December 16, 2020 9:31pm EST

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  • Legal Action
  • Protest Politics
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In July 2018, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, along with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) and Students for a Conservative Voice (SCV), sued the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (UMN), claiming the university purposely held a Shapiro event at a small venue on account of political bias. The university claimed it had moved the event from a larger space only because of pragmatic safety concerns. On Aug. 28, 2020, a U.S. district judge ruled in the university’s favor.

Key Players

Ben Shapiro is a political commentator who founded and serves as editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, a conservative news website. He also hosts a daily political podcast and a live radio program. Shapiro is frequently invited to speak at campuses across the country, events often preceded by student demonstrations that have led to arrests, damages, and disciplinary action. Shapiro’s 2017 speech at University of California, Berkeley, for example, led to the arrest of nine students, four of whom were charged with carrying banned weapons. There were also $600,000 worth of fees and damages on that occasion, and a subsequent lawsuit filed by Shapiro and YAF resulted in Berkeley having to pay $70,000 in damages to YAF and a year of litigation that ended with the university’s altering its speaker policies. 

UMN is a public university composed of a campus in Minneapolis and another in nearby St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota. The school boasts a student body of approximately 50,000 undergraduates and said it had relocated Shapiro’s event in order to be able to protect it from disruption. 

YAF is a conservative youth organization with hundreds of chapters in high schools and colleges around the country. Founded in 1960 under the name Young Americans for Freedom by public intellectual and editor William Buckley Jr., the organization later merged in 2011 with the Young America’s Foundation, which was founded by students at Vanderbilt University in 1969. The conglomerate organization hosts retreats, panel discussions, and other events with the goal of promoting “ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.”

SCV is a political organization at UMN that publishes The Minnesota Republic, the university’s only conservative-leaning publication. Both SCV and YAF joined Shapiro in suing UMN. 

Further Details

In February 2018, YAF and SCV requested UMN officials to invite commentator Ben Shapiro to speak on campus, proposing that the event be held at Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium, the Minneapolis campus’s principal venue, according to the lawsuit. However, Casetext, a legal research company, stated “the record contain[ed] no evidence” that such a proposal was made to host the event at the auditorium, which seats close to 3,000 attendees and has been used in the past for other prominent speakers such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The UMN administration, however, ultimately decided to hold the event in a smaller ballroom located on the St. Paul campus, citing concerns that the demonstrators who typically show up at Shapiro’s public appearances might damage university property. 

Shapiro’s talk ended up proceeding without disruption, according to YAF and SCV, despite small student protests outside the venue before it began. The university spent approximately $15,000 on security. In July 2018, Shapiro, along with YAF and SCV, filed a federal lawsuit against several UMN officials, claiming the university’s decision to move it stemmed from an anti-conservative bias. 


Judge rules UMN not driven by political bias

On August 28, 2020, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled that UMN was primarily driven by safety concerns, not political bias, when moving Shapiro’s event. In her ruling, she said the choice of venue was a “content-neutral place restriction in furtherance of public safety.” Nelson further noted that the university spoke with the student groups to find the most appropriate venue before the event. SCV president Madison Dibble, according to Nelson, had also reluctantly agreed the smaller venue was the best viable option when considering security, seating, and general expenditures. “Consistent with the law that governs ‘limited public forums,’ University officials put reasonable restrictions in place to insure the event was secure,” she wrote.

Nelson differentiated Shapiro’s event from others with a different political orientation held on the UMN campus in years past, citing the pattern of student protests preceding Shapiro’s appearances. Former high-profile speakers at UMN did not draw security risks, she said, and, therefore did not require relocation to smaller venues. The ruling allowed the university to retain the right to alter event plans in order to prioritize the well-being of its students, the public, and any potential speakers.