Hate Speech vs. Free Speech: The Fight for Trans Rights

Written by Parker Wadding

Photo by Parker Wadding

There have been numerous protests on and around the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in response to two right-wing student-run organizations holding events and inviting speakers with a history of promoting transphobic rhetoric.

Turning Point USA (TPUSA) is a conservative organization promoted in high schools and colleges across the United States. TPUSA’s mission statement is to educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government. The University of Pittsburgh Chapter of Turning Point USA invited Riley Gaines to speak at an event on March 27th. Riley Gaines is an American Swimmer who started advocating for the prohibition of transgender women from women’s sports, after she tied with Lia Thomas, a transwoman swimmer, at the 2022 NCAA Championships.

Another event that has sparked intense debate across University of Pittsburgh’s campus was sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and hosted by the College Republicans at Pitt. The ISI is a non-profit organization that encourages conservative thought on college campuses around the United States. The event was a debate on April 18th, the main question being debated was “Should transgenderism be regulated by law?”  Another aspect of this event that raised red flags was the attendance of Michael Knowles. On the Daily Wire in March of 2023 Knowles said, “For the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.”

These events have caused students to take to the streets in protest, with chants calling out the speaker’s history of hate speech. One protest on March 24 was held in front of the Cathedral of Learning. One protester explained how the rally made them feel, “seeing people that I know is very comforting, when all of this stuff is going on its very isolating, especially when you are the only trans person in a group, it’s good to know that people see it as disgusting.”

The University of Pittsburgh is receiving a considerable amount of backlash for letting the events proceed. Nicholas Demjan, an undergraduate Queer History Researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, started a petition asking for students and faculty to “Hold University of Pittsburgh Accountable in Protecting LGBTQIA+ Individuals.” As of April 30th, the petition has 11,743 signatures.

In response to the petition and protests, University of Pittsburgh’s Communications Director and Spokesperson, Jared Stonesifer, spoke with Pittsburgh City Paper. He stated that the first amendment protects TPUSA and the College Republicans at Pitt’s freedom of speech, therefore the University of Pittsburgh is not allowed to stand in the way of these events. He asserted that “legally protected speech and expression can at times offend and marginalize some members of our community and contradict unwavering university values.”

Despite the University’s lack of action, students are not ready to give up just yet. A protester at the March 24th rally stated, “People who advocate for the eradication of a group of people never win in the end. It’s not like being trans is going away, you can get rid of all the trans people who exist now, there will still be trans people.”