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.

Still, several transgender and LGBTQ students criticized Pitt’s response in interviews with PublicSource. They described the university’s messaging and actions as insulting and “cowardly,” minimizing how transgender students feel about the speakers, distancing the university from the events and placing free speech above their concerns and safety. 

“Their supposed commitments to supporting trans and non-binary people, or any other group that they claim to support, is secondary to their overriding desire to avoid getting sued,” said Lindstrom, the business manager for Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance organization. She added that protecting vulnerable students “is an important goal that is worth fighting for, and worth maybe taking a little heat.” 

Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA is hosting the two other speaking events. Cabot Phillips, an editor and writer at the conservative news website The Daily Wire, will speak on campus Friday at 7 p.m. Riley Gaines, a 12-time NCAA All-American swimmer who has condemned the participation of transgender women athletes in women’s sports, is speaking Monday at 5:45 p.m.  

A rally for transgender rights will take place Friday at 6 p.m., an hour before the Phillips event, outside the Cathedral of Learning. TransYOUniting, a local nonprofit, is hosting another rally on Monday from 4 to 6 p.m., near campus on Forbes Avenue.

How do you balance free speech and student safety?

Robin Kear, president of the University Senate, is grappling with the pain she knows the events are causing LGBTQ students on campus and the free-speech rights she knows other students have. The Senate, which is a shared governance body, is participating in discussions about harmful speech with the Student Government Board and is encouraging the campus community to express their views and attend counter events.

“To be honest, we aren’t set up for this, right? Academia is based on the free exchange of ideas from people of goodwill,” said Kristin Kanthak, Senate vice president. “It leaves you vulnerable to people who aren’t of goodwill or people who want to exploit people who don’t know very much. And from my perspective, that’s where we are now.”

The First Amendment does not protect targeted threats, incitement to imminent lawless action or behavior that creates a “pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students,” according to the ACLU. However the civil liberties union states that “merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level, and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis.”

Civil liberties advocates say that restricting protected speech on campus also stifles the exchange of ideas and reflects a surface-level solution to hate and inequality that fails to tackle root causes. 

A liberal arts education is intended to expose society’s future leaders to debate of diverse viewpoints, said Zach Greenburg, senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. 

“We believe that students are mature enough to confront opposing ideas, that they’re wise enough to counter the speech that they don’t like with their own speech,” Greenburg said. He said the backlash seen at Pitt reflects a larger trend of college students being intolerant of opposing viewpoints.

While acknowledging the free-speech rights of the student groups organizing the events, Pitt has stated that the “presence of these speakers on our campus does not change the University’s unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

But all of the transgender and LGBTQ students who spoke with PublicSource expressed concern over the speakers creating an unsafe environment on campus, with several citing Knowles’ comments on eradicating “transgenderism” from public life as carrying violent or harmful implications. (He later said his remarks were not a call to eradicate transgender people.)

In a message to the campus community, Provost Ann Cudd said his comments have “disrespected” transgender people and represent “repugnant” rhetoric. 

“I don’t feel disrespected by that statement,” said Laura Stravach, president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance club, who is non-binary and queer. “I feel like that is someone saying that my life is not worthy enough to be on this planet. That is not disrespect – that goes far beyond.”

Deran Beckwith, a fourth-year student who is transgender, loves politics and a good debate. But they said the upcoming events are debating students’ humanity, which is “always hard to hear.” They understand the legal concerns that may factor into Pitt’s response, but they believe the university’s actions are at odds with its stated commitment to supporting LGBTQ students. 

Disrupting events such as those happening at Pitt is “the goal,” as doing so prevents hateful groups from organizing greater harm, Beckwith said.  

Pitt did not detail the specific measures it’s taking to ensure student safety in the time surrounding the events, as PublicSource requested. Spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said the university has a strong non-discrimination policy, and students can report discrimination with the Pitt Concern Connection tool.

Pitt is focused on ensuring all members of the campus community are safe and able to freely express themselves, Stonesifer said. The university communicates with students, faculty and staff to understand their event plans and needs, and it collaborates across departments to “help plan for and promote a safe and welcoming environment for all,” he said.

Liliana Orozco, president of Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, said in a statement that college campuses are “perfect” places for challenging and discussing ideas with civility. “It is a shame that in this day and age people cannot have opposing ideas,” Orozco wrote, adding that she’s received death threats over the events.

Mitchell, of the College Republicans, said the university has appropriately defended the group’s free-speech rights so far. He said college students are constantly affirmed in “their radical, left-wing beliefs” and sheltered from opposition, and many conservatives are afraid to speak out due to potential backlash. 

“We’re not backing down. We’re still going to hold the events. And if they’re this afraid of one conservative speaker being brought to campus, they should get used to it because we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” Mitchell said.

In response to some students’ safety concerns, he said: “It’s a ridiculous contention that just us bringing a speaker to campus is going to potentially cause them violence. … I am not encouraging, nor bringing, any violence upon them in any manner. I am not even attempting to censor their right to speak.” 

Like the thousands of petition signatories, third-year doctoral student Dylan Kapit would like the university to cancel the events. By allowing the events to take place, Pitt is encouraging and condoning Knowles’ rhetoric on campus, said Kapit, who is transgender and non-binary.

“You’re on the wrong side of history here, Pitt. You just are,” Kapit said. 

Students call for greater support

With the events on the horizon, several students shared concrete ways Pitt could better support LGBTQ students. They said the university could increase its financial support for their student organizations, invest more resources into the counseling center and provide greater support for students who come out in college.

The actions Pitt has taken so far are “not nearly enough for what they are willing to allow in the opposite,” Beckwith said.

Pitt offers counseling on its Oakland campus, currently without a waitlist, and has for years maintained a Transgender Working Group of students, faculty and staff who develop training and initiatives around inclusivity, Stonesifer said. The university also hired a coordinator of belonging and inclusion this summer, who reports directly to LGBTQ students and organizations.

The counseling center is working to offer drop-in spaces in the William Pitt Union during the upcoming events and throughout Pride Week. The Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is also developing new anti-bias education and training, Stonesifer said.

Students found it important for Pitt to create a physical space for LGBTQ students on campus, like other universities have. The Rainbow Alliance has an office on the sixth floor of the William Pitt Union, but students said a larger space would help people who feel unsafe and serve as a resource for those learning to navigate their identities.

Stonesifer said space constraints are the subject of “consistent conversation,” adding that “the University is exploring additional space opportunities to serve all of our diverse student populations.”

The Rainbow Alliance is hosting a drag show on Sunday, the day before the second event. The organization has discussed whether they’ll need security, and Beckwith, who is performing, is weighing whether they’ll feel safe walking home or will need to bring an extra set of clothes to change into. 

Beckwith refuses to let fear dominate their life. They know that’s what transphobic people want, and they know that doing the opposite empowers others. But they also believe that, without strong opposition from supporters, hateful views can wield more influence and feel more common than they really are.

“I think it takes 10 times the amount of love and acceptance to get rid of one ounce of fear,” they said. “It’s really hard to combat that. But we definitely try our best.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.