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University Sides with Free Speech on Rittenhouse Event Despite Calls for Cancellation

Kyle Rittenhouse will speak at the University of Memphis on Wednesday, March 20, as part of a nationwide speaking tour in collaboration with the Turning Point USA University of Memphis chapter called “The Rittenhouse Recap: The Verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse.”

Since the event was announced on March 1, it has been met with a large response from the University’s student body, mainly pointing out the shooting of three men by Rittenhouse during an instance of civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse was subsequently acquitted of two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide, and two counts of reckless endangerment. 

In Turning Point Memphis’ announcement of the event, the organization stated that “Rittenhouse is an advocate for our Second Amendment in the Constitution. He was proven innocent in trial. He was attacked, he defended himself and he was acquitted. Now he plans to share his story for all to hear his point of view aside from how the media framed him.” 

“We like having open conversations. We advocate for that,” said Anne-Elizabeth Matheny, a U of M alum who currently serves as the Turning Point USA field representative for the Ozark region, spanning Memphis and the state of Arkansas. “We think it’s something that our generation has lost–the ability to conversate instead of attacking, bullying and saying hateful things without knowing somebody, just because of their beliefs.” 

The initial student response to the event was very mixed, with many students protesting and calling for Turning Point’s event to be shut down. “My initial response to the event being announced was confusing,” said Nestor Avila, a graduate student at the University of Memphis studying health administration. “I couldn’t believe that higher-level staffers were validating Kyle’s hatred rhetoric by giving him a platform. I was angry, but I also realized that [Turning Point] had the right to invite any speaker, no matter their opinion.” 

“Living in the South as a Black person, I know that racism is still all around no matter who is speaking,” said Shynia Smith, a senior at the University of Memphis studying biology. “Having [Rittenhouse] here does make me feel slighted, but I understand that the university’s hands are legally tied.” 

The Black Student Association hosted a town hall event, “Let’s Talk About Kyle: Free Speech, BLM, Racial Violence,” on March 13, informing students of the controversy surrounding Kyle Rittenhouse and the event being held on campus. The organization stated, “We are being viewed to see how we are going to react to this event. This is the importance of peaceful and powerful actions that we are trying to do, joining together to convey the message that Kyle Rittenhouse should not be able to speak here without questioning, as we feel he is not aligned with the values of diversity, equity and inclusion espoused here at the University of Memphis.”

The BSA is calling for U of M students to peacefully protest by getting the free tickets to Kyle Rittenhouse’s event, showing up early to the event to fill up seats and then engaging in a mass student walkout from the event itself. “Let’s make a peaceful and powerful statement by pulling the narrative from Kyle Rittenhouse to us. Memphis, as a city, is looking for ways to reduce gun violence and crime. A figurehead such as Kyle Rittenhouse does very little to promote or highlight the efforts and desires of those who seek to make occurrences such as the Kenosha shooting sparse.” 

In a statement sent by U of M to student and faculty’s university emails on March 15, the University explained the legal implications behind not shutting down Turning Point’s event, despite a massive call from students to stop the event from happening: “As a public institution, the University of Memphis must uphold its obligation to adhere to the principles of the First Amendment and Tennessee’s Campus Free Speech Act. Due to this obligation, the University cannot legally prohibit the event from taking place.” 

“The First Amendment is one of the most important guarantees and rights as individuals, with the right to be able to discuss things no matter how controversial they are,” said Max Bonner, the president of the University of Memphis College Republicans. “I believe that the university has issued the best response it can at the moment. The whole point of the college and university system is to be able to discuss controversial ideas and events in a productive, civil manner.” 

“I am thankful that the university has stood strong,” said Matheny. “Although there have been people that have been trying to sabotage the event, I’m glad that they haven’t. I think it’s important for those people to just be okay to agree to disagree. I’m just grateful that the University has stood strong in allowing us to continue, even though there has been some pullback.” 

In contrast, some students like Avila complain that the university’s response was too lenient and inadequate. “The response was generic, almost as if [President Bill Hardgrave] wants to be far from the controversy. An email is not enough.” 

Despite fierce efforts to extinguish the event, the lecture will continue as scheduled on Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in the UC Theater. Matheny assures that thorough discussions about safety have been had and all safety and security measures, for both attendees and protesters, have been taken. Memphis Police officers, campus police and a volunteer team will be present to ensure the event remains peaceful.

“We want everyone that is attending to be safe and to feel safe. We also want people to be able to protest outside, if needed, as well. We have proper protocols in place for everything to hopefully run smoothly and safely," said Matheny.

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