Charlie Kirk, the president and founder of right-wing student group Turning Point USA, was greeted at a table outside the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus with a chorus of cheers from a crowd of student volunteers from the group's ASU chapter Wednesday afternoon.
After snapping a few photos, he took a seat under a tent decorated with a sign that said "Debate me!" for an event sponsored by Turning Point's ASU chapter called "Prove Me Wrong: The Government Is Lying to You."
Students clustered close to Kirk under the bright afternoon sun for a chance to ask questions and debate a variety of topics, including abortion rights and premarital sex, with the conservative activist. Between conversations, which never became hostile, students who admired Kirk snapped selfies with him from across the table and shook hands with the controversial figure. One student even had Kirk sign the bottom of his skateboard deck.
Kirk said the crowd was "so much better behaved than NAU," where he was received by a rowdy audience chanting "fascist" at him at an event with the same title hosted last week, according to a video shared on social media. The crowd that gathered at ASU was much tamer — there were more supporters of Kirk and neutral bystanders than active protestors.
ASU has been a main target for Turning Point USA and conservatives in general this year. February's on-campus "Health, Wealth & Happiness" seminar, which included Kirk, drew criticism from Barrett professors in the form of a letter condemning the event. This criticism led to the dissolution of Barrett's T.W. Lewis Center of Personal Development, which presented the event, and an internal investigation by ASU by order of a state legislative committee.
Kirk still has a problem with how the February event was handled, calling the letter and the professors who signed it "reprehensible."
"I think ... the most important thing is that if you're a professor, even if you hate me, you shouldn't sign an open letter saying that I shouldn't be allowed to Arizona State University," Kirk said. "It shows that they're not very confident in their beliefs and they want an ideological minority at ASU."
Wednesday's event occurred just hours before Kirk was scheduled to speak at "Health, Wealth & Happiness 2.0," another on-campus seminar also featuring conservative media personality Dennis Prager, as the first "Health, Wealth & Happiness" event did.
Elena Melis, a freshman studying music, approached Kirk with questions about his thoughts on contraceptives. Despite her disagreements with him, she said he was mellow.
"I understand the fact that I'm not gonna agree with everything, but he's not unreasonable," Melis said.
Melis added that she is interested in having more diverse viewpoints represented on campus.
"I think it's really interesting to hear different points of views of people that aren't my (own)," she said. "It's interesting to understand where they come from."
David, whose last name has been omitted for privacy, was the lone protestor at the event. The sophomore studying mechanical engineering sat a few feet away from Kirk with posters laid on the ground showcasing sarcastic titles, including "definitely not racist things Charlie Kirk has said" and "Charlie Kirk’s 'support' of free speech," which highlighted some of Kirk's past statements.
"I'm just here to let everybody know that this is not a real view of ASU," David said. "This is the view of the 60 people that are here … It's a collection of people who are stuck in the past."
While David did disagree with the views espoused by Kirk and Turning Point USA, he understood ASU's obligation as a public university to serve as a forum of free speech under the First Amendment. However, he criticized members of Turning Point's ASU chapter and other Kirk supporters for speaking over him and "harassing" him about his opposing views at an event billed as a debate on social media.
"It's not a real debate," David said. "They like to talk about, 'if you disagree, come debate me, come talk to me. We'll get both sides.' The problem is, if you look over there, there's 60 Turning Point supporters. So if I walk over there, I'm one in 60."
Rachael Jesus, a freshman studying aerospace engineering, was curious about the crowd as she passed by, so she stopped to see what kind of debate would be happening between the students and Kirk. She said that even though she doesn't enjoy his antagonistic debate style, the University shouldn't stop him from coming.
"In the end, there is always going to be students who want to hear him," Jesus said.
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.
Shane Brennan is the Editor-in-Chief at The State Press. He was a sports and politics reporter, before becoming the editor of the politics desk. He has covered local and state politics for the Arizona Capitol Times and Cronkite News.