University of Pittsburgh criticized for events focused on transgender issues

So far, the university has declined to cancel the events and emphasized the institution’s commitment to free speech, diversity and inclusion.

Updated: March 22, 2023 - 11:00pm

As the University of Pittsburgh prepares for a trio of events on transgender issues, thousands of students have demanded that administrators cancel them.

State-level lawmakers have joined in the call as well.

Free-speech advocates, however, warn that doing so harms freedom of expression and threatens the university as a place for open debate. One of the events that some students oppose will also include a transgender speaker.

So far, the university has declined to cancel the events and emphasized the institution’s commitment to free speech, diversity and inclusion.

On March 24, the Turning Point USA chapter at Pitt will host Cabot Phillips, an editor for The Daily Wire, for an event on “Everything the Media Won’t Tell You.”

On March 27, TPUSA will also host Riley Gaines, a former swimmer at the University of Kentucky who has been critical of the NCAA allowing Lia Thomas, a trans woman, to compete in women’s swimming competitions. Gaines’s event, titled “Saving Women’s Sports,” will “bring more attention to the opportunities being taken from female athletes by biological males who are competing against them,” according to TPUSA.

On April 18, the Pitt College Republicans with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute will host a debate on transgenderism and womanhood featuring Michael Knowles of The Daily Wire and Deidre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Illinois and a trans woman.

A petition started by Pitt student Nicholas Demjan to “hold the University of Pittsburgh accountable” has received almost 11,000 signatures. The petition calls for the events to be canceled.

“This egregious display of transphobia and hate cannot be allowed to occur on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus,” the petition reads. “We must keep students, faculty, staff, and the greater Pittsburgh community safe."

"It is deeply disturbing that the Office of Student Affairs is even considering the approval of these events to take place on campus, as it violates multiple principles and policies the University of Pittsburgh states that it stands for," the petition continues.

The Pennsylvania House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus issued a statement of condemnation as well.

“I am shocked, appalled and outraged that an institution as prestigious as the University of Pittsburgh is allowing these events to occur on their property and bolstering these hateful individuals,” said Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Carrick. “This is not a free speech issue. Hate speech is not protected speech. This is about the safety of transgender students and recognizing that transgender people exist.”

Speech that some consider hateful, however, is protected by the First Amendment.

She called the ISI event “a direct violation” of Pitt’s commitment to trans community members.

“Transgender individuals at Pitt are not feeling supported – they are feeling endangered,” Benham said. “I am urging the university to step in and cancel the events in the interest of protecting the LGBTQ+ community at Pitt.”

In a press release, university officials refused to cancel the events and said student groups have the right to invite speakers as part of its commitment "to cultivating an environment of mutual respect, concern for others, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.”

“As a public university, we also uphold the principles of protected speech and expression and acknowledge that legally protected speech and expression can at times offend and marginalize some members of our community and contradict unwavering university values," officials said. "As an academic community, we encourage intellectual critique of and peaceful dissent from opposing viewpoints, counterspeech, and disengagement from experiences that do not support personal well-being.”

McCloskey, the trans speaker for the ISI event, condemned the petition.

“A thousand people have signed a petition against Michael Knowles 'debating’ me on transgender matters on April 18 at Pittsburgh. They should be ashamed,” McCloskey wrote in a tweet. “True, Knowles is an anti-Jesus Catholic, a fascist advocating state power over ideas. But we live in a free country.”

Members of TPUSA at Pitt thanked the university and invited those who signed the petition to come to the event.

“Even though the university does not endorse our events, we appreciate their consistent support,” Chapter President Lili Orozco said in a statement posted on the group’s Instagram. “We invite members of the Pitt community who disagree with us to attend our events and hear an opposing viewpoint.”

Free speech organizations, too, condemned lawmakers for demanding the events be canceled.

Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager for free expression and education at PEN America, said it's "deeply troubling" that government officials are pressuring the cancellation of student-sponsored events at a public university "without an eye to the broad free speech implications."

“While it is understandable that these legislators are concerned about the spread of hate or the targeting of trans students, those concerns do not justify using public office to control who is permitted to speak," she said. "Eroding the freedom of expression for some will erode it for all, and universities in particular must remain free from legislative incursions and political pressure to fulfill their role as sites of free inquiry and debate.”

Shahverdian praised the university for not canceling the events and urged opponents to respond with protests or counter-speech, not by trying to shut down other events.