SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The University of Utah plans to ramp up security Wednesday night for conservative speaker Ben Shapiro, putting into action the lessons it learned from a visit to the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month for his appearance that drew a huge police presence to ward off violent protests.
Though Utah doesn’t have a history of free speech protests and violence like Berkeley, a liberal bastion and the birthplace of the American free speech movement, officials at Utah’s flagship college didn’t want to take any chances amid a climate of heightened political tensions.
The University of Utah leans more liberal than the rest of the conservative state, much like Salt Lake City, where it’s located. The city has had some unrest during protests in recent years against police shootings and white extremism as well as at a Donald Trump campaign rally.
The University of Utah aims to strike a delicate balance to protect protesters and people attending a speech by former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, while trying to avoid a "police state" atmosphere, school spokesman Chris Nelson said.
"There’s no concern about peaceful protest, in fact we embrace and support it," Nelson said. "What we’re preparing for is any violence, any type of clashes."
The university will prohibit protesters from wearing face masks and use barriers to separate them from those attending Shapiro’s talk, Nelson said.
All 40 University of Utah police officers were expected to be on campus, as well as an unspecified number of officers from other departments. Some classes near the speech will be moved.
Nelson said he didn’t immediately know how much the university had spent on preparations, which are similar to those UC Berkeley has taken.
The California school spent $600,000 on security during Shapiro’s Sept. 14 speech, which prompted largely peaceful protests. The city and campus have become flashpoints for the country’s political divisions, drawing extremist groups from the left and right and producing violence at four demonstrations since February.
It has led authorities to come up with new strategies to balance free speech rights with the need to control rowdy and sometimes dangerous crowds.
Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, uses his web-based talk show and online columns to support President Donald Trump’s policies and criticize the "self-righteous media."
Nearly 400 free tickets for his speech in Utah went quickly Saturday after students waited in long lines, said student Dillon Clark of the Young Americans for Freedom organization. Clark said his group invited Shapiro to promote conservative views in what can be a liberal-leaning campus environment.
Clark said he expects Shapiro to talk about freedom of speech and critique left-leaning political tactics.
Students held a sit-in at the university president’s office earlier this month, urging the event to be canceled. Protesters said in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune that they planned to "shut down" the speech, saying Shapiro’s positions on transgender people, LGBT rights and conversion therapy could hurt vulnerable people.
The Utah event comes a day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried what he sees as political correctness run amok on college campuses during an invitation-only crowd at Georgetown University’s law school.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah sent Sessions’ remarks to reporters at the direction of the Department of Justice public affairs office.
"The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas," Sessions said. "But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."