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(NEW YORK) -- Ben Shapiro is a 33-year-old father of two, a lawyer who wears button-down shirts and has his own media platforms.
He also has been on a speaking tour promoting what he believes are frank conversations about America today in the name of free speech, and now Shapiro is at the center of a nationwide debate about whether polarizing voices are being stifled by protesters on American college campuses.
Shapiro is the editor-in-chief of the conservative website The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show, a popular political podcast that has millions of downloads each week.
And Shapiro is on the college lecture circuit at a time when there have been increasingly violent protests against conservative speakers on campus. Tensions flared over white nationalist Richard Spencer after he spoke Thursday at University of Florida, where the governor of Florida had dispatched the National Guard ahead of the event in case violence broke out. In February, an event with provocateur and former Breitbart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley was shut down after protestors threw rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Last month, Shapiro spoke at the University of Berkeley as well and local authorities spent over $500,000 on security. Local businesses closed early and ATMs were boarded up.
“The headlines were nuts,” Shapiro said. “I mean, the headlines like, ‘Berkeley braces for Shapiro visit.’ Really? Was I the one who's going around smashing ATMs?”
“Nightline” was there for his lecture at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in September. Just hours before he was supposed to take the stage, Shapiro said he was already hearing reports of possible violence.
“I'm hearing some rumors that there may be some people who try to bring weapons tonight which would just be ridiculous, and awful,” he said. “I don't want to be killed in my lectures.”
At his University of Utah lecture, Shapiro’s security team sneaked him in. A fellow conservative podcast host claimed he captured undercover video of self-described Antifa members allegedly handing out knives and talking about luring fans of Shapiro to their car where they allegedly had guns.
“I mean, this is insanity,” he said.
Shapiro said he believes it’s political correctness run amok.
“It’s the furthest extension of political correctness,” he said. “That when you say something, it’s not just me disagreeing with you, it is me destroying your identity as a human being in a way that is akin to violence.”
Shapiro’s controversial comments have made him a target for protesters, especially his comments about the LGBTQ community, including that he openly says he believes those who are transgender have a mental illness, wrongfully equating it to gender dysphoria.
“It is a psychological disorder,” he said. “So that's not an insult to people who suffer from psychological disorders…you are not doing a service to people who are suffering from a mental disorder to humor them by suggesting that their mental disorder is reflected in objective reality.”
The American Psychological Association does not define being transgender as a mental illness. A gender dysphoria, is on the list of conditions, a diagnosis only applies if the individuals experiences significant distress. Gender dysphoria is not an inherent part of being transgender, though the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 40 percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide, often after being mistreated by others and struggling with depression.
But while he is hated by many on the left, he is also hated by the self-described alt-right movement.
“I've been very, very outspoken against the alt-right,” he said. “I've said alt-right is a garbage movement composed of garbage ideas that it has nothing to do with constitutional conservatism.”
Shapiro is also fiercely critical of President Trump and he publicly quit his last job at Breitbart News when a female colleague was allegedly manhandled by Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowsky and Shapiro thought Breitbart failed to have her back.
“I quit under very public circumstances because Breitbart had been turning itself into a Trump propaganda arm and the alt-right really like President Trump,” he said.
An Orthodox Jew, Shapiro said he has received thousands of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter, as well as death threats over the phone and in the mail. It’s why Shapiro said he finds it hard to believe that protesters call him a white supremacist.
“That is the stupidest thing I have legitimately ever heard,” he said. “I keep hearing this and I keep wondering, ‘Was it the yarmulke that gave it away?’”
Shapiro has been interested in politics for as long as he can remember. He went on to start his own nationally syndicated column at age 17, but because he was a minor, his parents had to sign the contract for him. He graduated from UCLA at age 20, put out two books by age 21 and graduated from Harvard Law School at age 23.
On the day he was speaking at the University of Utah, Professor David Vergobbi, who teaches a class there on freedom of expression, said many college students today do not understand that speech is protected under the First Amendment, unless it directly incites violence.
“This is a public institution. It's a government entity. They have to guarantee the free speech rights of everyone including Shapiro,” Vergobbi said. “No content neutrality. The emotional principle. Offense is not enough to shut down speech.”
When he took the stage at Utah, Shapiro focused on what he called America’s culture of victimization. He inserted his views into some of the most heated debates in our divided country, from police shootings to the NFL kneeling controversy.
Shapiro said he believes racism is real, but he doesn’t believe “institutional racism” is real.
“Yes, of course there are racists,” he said. “There are racist cops who shoot black guys for no reason should go to jail and they should throw away the key. But this idea that's put out there by these kind of broad statements about America being a discriminatory racist country, I don't know how that helps anything, and I don't think it's actually true.”
He also shared his controversial views on the country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
“The question is what is the remedy now?” Shapiro continued. “Is the remedy now to blame people who are living today who had nothing to do with Jim Crow or slavery? I didn't hold slaves.”
In his Utah speech, Shapiro continuously brought attention to his theme of white victimhood.
“The hierarchy of victimhood goes as follows,” he told the crowd. “If you’re LGBTQ, then we suggest you are at the very top of the hierarchy. After that it’s black folks, and then Hispanics, and then women and then Jews and then Asians, and then all the way at the bottom, white folks.”
When asked about how his audience was mostly white at his Utah speech, Shapiro said it wasn’t his intention for his message to only resonate with white people and he said he wished his lecture crowds were more racially diverse.
The end of his lecture at Utah ended peacefully, but two protesters were arrested.
Even being at the center of controversy in today’s divided political landscape, Shapiro said he is still optimistic about the future.
“I think that there's going to be a strong backlash for people who are tired of it … want to stand up for basic rights that we can all agree on,” he said.
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