WKU ‘compelled by law’ to host Rittenhouse

Published 3:58 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

By MICHAEL J. COLLINS, Bowling Green Daily News

The conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA and its Western Kentucky University chapter announced this month that Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 but was acquitted in a criminal trial on self-defense arguments, will speak on campus Wednesday.

Western Kentucky University President Tim Caboni on Monday distanced the university from the upcoming “Rittenhouse Recap” event in a statement to faculty, staff and students.

Caboni pointed to the Campus Free Speech Protection Act of 2019, which prohibits WKU from disinviting or disrupting speakers invited by students, faculty or staff.

“As guardians of free speech, universities have an obligation to establish an environment where a wide range of perspectives are exchanged, even if the ideas presented are different from our own, offensive or even contemptible,” Caboni stated. “Furthermore, as a public university, WKU is compelled by law to do so.”

Organizations and concerned community members have spoken out against the event and counter-demonstrations are planned that evening across campus.

Caboni added that any student organization can reserve space at WKU, though this does not constitute endorsement or support from the university.

Caboni stated that WKU “does not take positions on local, national or international issues unrelated to higher education or the university directly,” guided by the concept of “institutional neutrality.”

“If WKU were to compromise our institutional neutrality in response to donors, alumni, politicians, activists and others, we would jeopardize our faculty and students’ ability to challenge controversial and uncomfortable ideas,” Caboni stated.

Caboni also stated that “the cure for speech with which we disagree is not less speech but more speech.”

“If you disagree with a speaker’s content or character, you have a range of options: attend, listen and question; don’t attend or don’t listen; create counter programming somewhere else on campus that highlights a different perspective; or make your opposition heard through peaceful protest,” Caboni stated.

TPUSA chapter president Cade Holcombe and faculty sponsor Mark Doggette have not returned requests for comment.

Aubrey Laitsch, public relations manager for the national TPUSA organization, also said Holcombe had not responded to Daily News requests to answer questions.

Student organizations such as the WKU National Pan-Hellenic Council, Black Student Alliance, Queer Student Union and the NAACP Collegiate Chapter have condemned the event. A Change.org petition calling to disband the TPUSA chapter has received over 4,800 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

The Bowling Green Freedom Walkers will protest in front of E.A. Diddle Arena beginning at 6:30 p.m., and The Potter College of Arts and Letters will host a safe space event outside Cherry Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.

A similar event held at the University of Memphis last week was cut short when Rittenhouse was booed and heckled by many in the audience, according to local reporting and social media footage.

Rittenhouse also spoke at East Tennessee State University in February. FOX 17 of Nashville reported that Rittenhouse gave an account of what occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the night he shot three protesters.

“They put me on trial for defending myself and sometimes I think, ‘What would have happened if they killed me? Would they have prosecuted the people who killed me if I died?’ And I don’t think they would have,” Rittenhouse said, according to FOX 17.

The outlet also reported Rittenhouse was questioned about what made him qualified to speak on gun rights.

“Well, I’m actually a political consultant on Texas gun rights. I’m a writer for them and I have written articles and I researched gun laws recently,” Rittenhouse said.