Updated: ‘Anti-trans’ speakers are coming to Pitt. Student safety and speech rights collide.

Luna Olivia Lindstrom sits in the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

In an environment of rising rhetoric against transgender people, impending presentations by the College Republicans and Turning Point USA have energized debate on hateful speech on campus.

Update (3/25/23): Around 200 students gathered Friday evening outside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning to protest the speaker events and show solidarity with the transgender community. The protest came an hour before Cabot Phillips, a writer at the conservative news website The Daily Wire, spoke on campus for his event titled, “Everything the Media Won’t Tell You.” Protesting students circulated a list of demands, calling on Pitt to launch a fully staffed, in-person LGBTQ resource center, expand trans-inclusive health care and housing for students and respond to mental health crises without campus police.

by Emma Folts, PublicSource

Luna Lindstrom is very anxious. In the coming weeks, student organizations at the University of Pittsburgh will host three events featuring conservative speakers. One is far-right commentator Michael Knowles, who said this month that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

Lindstrom, a transgender woman and a third-year student at Pitt, generally feels safe on campus. That changes when large groups of visitors are around – she’s received hostile looks from students’ parents, for example – and she’s worried the upcoming events will attract harassment or violence. 

“I’m very afraid of what kind of people are going to be on campus for these events,” Lindstrom said. For the next month or so, she said she’ll move through campus with more apprehension, as “the university has not signaled that it’s willing to take real action to protect trans people.”

The events mark another flashpoint in the national debate over student safety and open expression in academia, with the backlash at Pitt rooted in concerns over the safety of LGBTQ students. A student petition calling for the university to cancel the events has collected more than 10,000 signatures, with supporters commenting that, “Hate should not be hosted at Pitt,” “I believe ALL should feel safe to be the way they are,” and, repeatedly, “Trans rights are human rights.” 

Transgender people are over four times more likely to experience violent crime than cisgender people, and LGBTQ students at four-year universities have reported higher rates of bullying, harassment and assault than their non-LGBTQ peers. The Pennsylvania House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus has called for the events to be canceled, as has the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP. Civil liberties groups, by contrast, have said the free exchange of ideas – even those that are offensive or hostile – is central to democracy and higher education.

Students organizing the events have pushed back against the outcry. Dylan Mitchell, president of the College Republicans at Pitt, said, “It’s disheartening to see so many people that are so averse to freedom of speech.” 

His organization is hosting a debate on “transgenderism and womanhood” on April 18, featuring Knowles and Deirdre McCloskey, a professor and transgender activist. McCloskey has also criticized the petition, writing on Twitter that signatories “should be ashamed” and that “we live in a free country.” 

“Professor McCloskey could very well wipe the floor with Mr. Knowles, I don’t know,” said Mitchell, a sophomore. “We are allowed to have that political discourse. We have the freedom to do that. We have the opportunity to do that. And it is a good thing.” 

Pitt has called the events “toxic and hurtful for many” while stating that, “as a public university, we also uphold the principles of protected speech and expression.” 

The university would face legal liability if it tried to cancel the upcoming events, as universities that receive public funding can’t discriminate against speakers under the First Amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] of Pennsylvania said in a statement. The organization – which said it’s “committed to ensuring that transgender people can live in our society with dignity, respect, and peace” – added that students who oppose the speakers’ views can use the same free-speech rights to organize and speak out.

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