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Barrett event with Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager draws faculty and student protest

Online discussion and debate about the event and protests against it have continued and escalated since Wednesday

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Dennis Prager, conservative media personality and co-founder of PragerU, speaks at the Health, Wealth and Happiness event with Dr. Radha Gopalan, Robert Kiyosaki and moderator Ann Atkinson at the Gammage Threater on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Tempe.

ASU is implementing protective measures for Barrett faculty after members of the honors community protested controversial guests Dennis Prager, Charlie Kirk and others who spoke at the "Health, Wealth & Happiness" seminar at ASU Gammage Wednesday. 

The event, which was hosted by the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at Barrett, The Honors College, took place as planned, but online discussion and debate about the event and protests against it have continued and escalated since.

READ MORE: Barrett faculty petitions, condemns event featuring Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk

Before the seminar, a group of honors faculty convened outside the Gammage entrance, some with signs that read "No hate at Barrett, period." Some ASU students gathered in solidarity with professors and people who felt they were in danger by the speakers being invited to campus.

The intention of the protest and petition was not to "cancel" or "boycott" the event, said a statement handed out at the protest by a Barrett faculty member.

"We believe strongly in freedom of speech, and believe we have every right to weigh in on what kind of public events our own college sponsors," the statement said.

Following the announcement of the event on Jan. 26, Barrett faculty signed a petition dated Feb. 1 and addressed to Barrett Dean Tara Williams to disassociate the event from the honors college.  

"I need to make clear to my students, to the communities that are being impacted, damaged or harmed by the event, that it is not in my name," said Michael Ostling, a Barrett religious studies scholar.

According to Ostling, 39 of 47 Barrett faculty and 72 non-Barrett faculty have signed the petition as of Thursday.

Starting Thursday, Turning Point USA, which Kirk founded, added about half of the Barrett faculty members who signed the petition to its "Professor Watchlist" — created to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom," according to its website.

It includes profiles of professors, including names, faces, contact information and why they fit the criteria for inclusion on the list. 

An ASU spokesperson wrote in an email to The State Press that ASU is aware of the increased risk, is starting to institute security measures to protect professors and has assigned a designated specialist to support them, which was communicated to faculty Friday in an email from University Provost Nancy Gonzales.

According to Mathew Sandoval, a Barrett faculty member, the Mercado building, which houses the Barrett suite on the Downtown Phoenix campus, will be instituting a "No ID, no entrance" policy and will be installing an intercom system.

Student response and Barrett teach-in

Kaitlyn Younger, a freshman studying economics, attended the protest. She expressed her displeasure as a member of the LGBTQ+ community that ASU would allow an individual who "has made comments questioning the existence of queer people and the trans community" onto campus.

READ MORE: Problems, progress and posters: Barrett's diversity framework, three years later

ASU Barret faculty stand in protest against the planned event called “Health, Wealth & Happiness” hosted by The T.W. Lewis Center with speakers Dennis Prager, Robert Kiyosaki, and Dr. Radha Gopalan at Gammage Theater on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Tempe.

Jack Fink, a sophomore studying marketing and chair of Students for Kari Lake, came to Gammage in support of the speakers.

"I really wanted to see Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager," Fink said. "I really like what they have to say and wanted to see what they had to say tonight."

Some other students' motivation for attending was based on curiosity regarding the controversy, like freshman biomedical engineering student Yash Soni, who "came to hear both standpoints."

Before the seminar Wednesday, Barrett faculty, students and community members gathered at the Vista Del Sol Theater for a teach-in discussion called "Defending the Public University: A Response to Turning Point USA and PragerU."

It was intended to "defend the public university for our students, our colleagues, our community members" and allow open dialogue, the Barrett faculty statement said.

The Vista Theater was filled with Barrett students listening to the experiences of professors. Faculty shared recent experiences receiving death threats and racial and antisemitic messages, and about how their statements were skewed by media organizations covering their petition.

A similar petition to the one Barrett faculty members sent to Barrett Dean Willams was put together by Barrett students condemning the event and was distributed at the teach-in.

The T.W. Lewis Center seminar

The seminar event itself focused on self-improvement.

Ann Atkinson, executive director of the Lewis Center and moderator of the event, began by introducing the center's mission. The T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development, established in 2019 in a Barrett collaboration with Tom Lewis and his foundation, provides courses, programs and a speaker series focused on "personal values and character development."

Lewis is the founder and CEO of T.W. Lewis Company, a Phoenix-based real estate business. He started his foundation in 2000 to support "higher education, children and families in need, youth education and a variety of other community charities." The foundation's website lists PragerU and Turning Point USA as organizations that have its support.

Lewis spoke after Atkinson. Lewis called Prager the "American Socrates." Kirk followed Lewis and denounced Barrett faculty who signed the petition condemning the event. 

Early in Kirk's speech, a person in the front of the audience holding a sign that said "Health, Wealth & Happiness includes Queer People" left the building accompanied by Gammage security. 

The audience member, David, is a freshman studying mechanical engineering, and requested his last name be withheld due to concerns about online harassment.

An ASU spokesperson and David independently said security personnel asked David to put down his sign because people behind him couldn't see, and that David told security he would "just leave then," and left the building followed by security.

David said he brought the sign to "make a point that the ASU and Barrett communities do not stand behind many of the views Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager have expressed."

During his speech, Kirk said, "despite all the clamoring and the nonsense, Arizona State University deserves credit for still allowing this event to proceed."

As the event continued, the panel of Prager, Kiyosaki and Dr. Radha Gopalan, a cardiologist at Banner Health in Phoenix, answered questions. During the discussion, Gopalan focused on health, Kiyosaki on wealth and Prager on happiness.

Prager recognized three ASU professors who wrote a Feb. 3 Daily Wire editorial in response to the petition. Much of the crowd rose for a standing ovation in response.

Jared Alvarez, a junior studying biochemistry, came to see the speakers to better understand them.

"As much as I disagree with the people coming here, I don't think it's the job of the public university to deny these speakers the right to have a venue," Alvarez said. 

Edited by Shane Brennan, Jasmine Kabiri, Greta Forslund and Piper Hansen.

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