Conservative Activist Charlie Kirk Visits FSU, Sparking Debate About Campus Political Climate
Recently, conservative activist Charlie Kirk spoke at Florida State University as part of his "Culture War" tour. The event was largely peaceful, a marked difference from three years ago, when former Brietbart columnist Milo Yiannopolos visited the school. Visits to college campuses by conservative activists come as the schools face increasing scrutiny over whether all groups can freely exercise their free speech rights.
Charlie Kirk is the founder of Turning Point USA, a non-profit organization promoting conservative ideas on college and high school campuses. Kirk’s speech and answers from audience questions touched on variety of issues, including:
Bernie Sanders's campaign: “Everything Sanders stands for is expanding the federal bureaucracy, is putting all the power in the same lobbyist ruling class that you don’t like, that you distrust," Kirk said.
Transgender athletes: “Men who think they’re women shouldn’t be able compete in sports with biological women.”
And marijuana legalization: "The more drug legalization has been embraced by states like California, Oregon, and Colorado, the more homelessness they have seen.”
The room at Doak Campbell stadium was packed with an estimated 500 people attending. There was a sea of color as attendees donning bright blue shirts saying “Culture War” and red “Make America Great Again” hats listen closely to Kirk’s words. Many at the event feel that Kirk represents their ideas and experiences, like this group of friends, Jake, Tom and Matt, who say they often don’t express their opinions at school.
"In 2020, of course! You can offend anyone," Jake says.
“My opinion, it’s not offensive, but we’re not allowed to say it. We’re gonna get backlash for it. I don’t tell anyone I’m a Republican, because I’ll get shit for it,” says Matt.
“And people who disagree with conservative views are always the most abraisive,” says Tom, adding to his friends’ words.
Outside the stadium, a group of student protesters were holding signs reading “No Room for Hate” and “Looking triggered?” adapting the phrase used by right-leaning groups online.
"Kirk and his rhetoric [is] inflammatory, ahistorical, and I think fall more into the category of fearmongering, versus genuine-good faith attempts to present a conservative point of view,” says Ellie Cooper, the lead organizer of FSUnite Against Kirk, the group protesting. She was asked to organize the protest when she learned about the student government used to fund FSU’s Turning Point chapter and Kirk’s appearance.
"It was $3,500, which is way beyond what SGA says the cap for a student organization is. Normally, for an entire year, any given student org gets $2,000,” Cooper says. “So a couple of people had learned about that, and were alarmed that SGA was making these sorts of votes and exceptions.”
The event and protest went smoothly with no major confrontation. That’s a major difference than when something similar happened a few years ago- in 2016, when FSU’s College Republicans invited Milo Yiannopolos to speak, there was a lot more confrontation and interactions between attendees and protesters came to a head. Isa Cassanova, another protester, said it was relatively problem-free. A few attendees allegedly did try to provoke the group, but protestors took a non-engagement stance.
The week before the event the group had put up posters advertising their protest, which read, “Charlie Kirk Counter Protest! Say NO to hate! Stop Lying Charlie.” Some of the posters were changed with black marker to say, “Charlie Kirk for the win! Say NO to being a weakling who can’t take someone else having a different opinion that opposes yours. Stop lying to yourself.”
Sam Staley is the director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a think tank on FSU’s campus that emphasizes economically conservative ideas. He’s also the faculty sponsor for the school’s Turning Point chapter. Staley says the university sets an example of how colleges should handle political diversity.
“Florida State is really quite remarkable in that even though the majority of the faculty and students are liberal and progressive, the administration is very much about promoting voice among students,” Staley says. “I’ve had the pleasure to work with them on events, and they’ve always been supportive of conservative organizations.”
He also says there’s a healthy amount of student involvement in conservative organizations, like Turning Point FSU.
“Right now, we have about 15 active [conservative] student organizations. That’s about 1,200 students who are engaged in conservative ideas,” he says.
Staley does believe that polarization is present on campuses especially after 2016, but says conversations between students can bridge the divide.
“It wasn’t just conservative students moving in a more populist direction, it was also the reaction from the left,” Staley says. “I see there’s a dramatic difference between when someone comes in, hyperpolarized, freshman and sophomore year, and when they leave as a junior and senior. We all expose to new things.”