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Purdue students prepare for Michael Knowles visit

 Purdue students are preparing for a visit from conservative speaker Michael Knowles this Thursday. (FILE PHOTO WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Purdue students are preparing for a visit from conservative speaker Michael Knowles this Thursday. (FILE PHOTO WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

Purdue University students are preparing for this week’s visit from speaker Michael Knowles, who made headlines recently after calling for the eradication of “transgenderism”.

Knowles’ visit comes as a series of anti-trans bills moves through the Indiana state legislature, including a bill barring gender-affirming care for transgender youth and another which requires that parents be notified if a student requests to be called by a name or pronoun inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth.

The speaking event was announced earlier this month through an event posting on Eventbrite. Some students plan to protest his speech, while others plan to hold a block party in support of trans students.

Spencer Johnson is with the Purdue College Republicans, which invited Knowles. He said he hopes the event stirs up interest in their club – but he also wants to ensure that Purdue follows through on its commitment to campus free speech.

“While they might not necessarily be endorsing the speaker or his ideas – that promises of protecting freedom of speech and freedom of expression on campus are true to their words and not just clever marketing,” he said.

The Purdue College Republicans have previously hosted events with Republican Senator Todd Young and then-Indiana Statehouse candidates Spencer Deery and Fred Duttlinger.

Johnson said the biggest conservative speaking engagement he can recall is Dennis Prager’s visit to campus in 2019, hosted by Turning Point USA.

“The school, as part of their diversity lecture series, hosted individuals such as Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo,” he said. “I think it’s important to have the other side of the aisle on campus, whether people like what they have to say or not.”

Purdue has invited a slate of conservative speakers to campus, including names like former president George W. Bush and J.D. Vance.

On campus, questions have circled around whether Knowles's comments amount to incitement.

Purdue’s Graduate Student Government passed a resolution earlier this month, which stated that by allowing Knowles to speak on campus, the university “is providing a platform for Knowles to continue to verbally attack and call for violence against transgender and gender nonconforming students.”

The Purdue Faculty Senate followed suit earlier this week with a resolution calling for support of LGBTQ students, underlining that “the proposed invited campus speaker incites existential harm toward Boilermakers and Indiana citizens.”

Officially, the Purdue administration has said Knowles does not represent the university – and it encourages “anyone who disagrees with student organization speakers' viewpoints to speak up with theirs.”

When asked what he would say to LGBTQ students who feel unsafe on campus because of a speaker like Knowles, Johnson said they are welcome to come to the event and counter Knowles’s points.

“They are welcome on campus. I’m not going to – and I’m not going to encourage anybody else – I’m going to actively discourage people from physically harming these people and making comments to these individuals that would be direct calls for violence or insulting comments,” he said. “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech – that doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. If someone is being objectively obscene or hurtful to an individual, that’s not freedom from consequence just because it’s protected by freedom of speech.”

There are at least two protests planned for Knowles's visit to campus. One isn’t officially connected to a campus group but is planned to take place inside the ballroom where Knowles is scheduled to speak, according to the Purdue Exponent.

The second protest is organized by the Purdue Young Democratic Socialists of America.

Emily Slater is with the Purdue YDSA. She said her initial reaction to learning that Knowles was coming to campus was that she had no idea who he was.

“He is a B-list, if that, grifter. This is somebody that – why are we even bringing him here?” she said. “Nobody knows who in the world he is. If they were going to bring some very conservative commentator, they couldn’t have sprung for Ben Shapiro?”

Slater said she doesn’t buy the argument that having someone like Knowles on campus is important for free speech.

“I think that there is a lot of room for free speech and a lot of room for sharing ideas and in good faith talking about a lot of issues,” she said. “But that is not what Michael Knowles does and not what Michael Knowles is coming to Purdue to do.”

Slater said she understands that protests outside the event could bring more attention to Knowles – but students felt they had to show that there is opposition to him.

“Do I think that Knowles and his ideology and rhetoric has enough intellectual merit to give attention to? Absolutely not,” she said. “Unfortunately we are – in this country – experiencing such an uptick in anti-trans sentiment that when it is coming to our community, I don’t know how we could do anything but say something to it.”

A third event has also been planned by Purdue students in response to Knowles’ visit.

A trans student who spoke with WBAA on the condition of anonymity, because she is worried for her on-campus safety due to the “rise in transphobic violence”, said students are organizing a block party to celebrate trans students at either the Purdue Memorial Mall or Stewart Center, depending on the weather.

According to a flyer, the “Block Party to Eradicate Transphobia” will include a drag show.

The organizer said in some ways, she’s glad that Knowles is saying the quiet part out loud.

“Somehow people believe him when he says eradicating transgenderism doesn’t mean eradicating trans people,” she said. “But when you have somebody just calling for genocide like that, it’s a lot harder to deny that’s the end goal.”

The organizer said she and other students discussed ways to put on an event that wouldn’t bring more attention to Knowles.

“We were thinking about how to respond, and then we realized the best way was just to not respond,” she said. “He feeds off of attention. So if we don’t give him any and acknowledge him in any way, then that’s the most effective way to address this.”

The event will take place at the same time as the Knowles speech.

“We – at least everybody I know in the trans community at Purdue – are very tired of having to fight for ourselves all the time,” the organizer said. “We, to some extent, just need a break. And so we realized the best thing to do is to organize something that’s productive that lets trans people have joy and just show that joy.”