Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Everyone felt they’d been heard

November 26, 2017

A strange thing happened in Pittsburgh recently: A right-of-center speaker appeared on a college campus, students organized a protest — and everyone left the event feeling they’d been heard.

Few Americans these days seem willing to share a room with anyone who does not also share their ideology and political outlook. But Pittsburgh serves as a key place for such dialogue: a blue dot of voters who supported Hillary Clinton, surrounded by a sea of red, representing President Donald Trump’s supporters. It’s a short drive to cover that gap, but few of us take the time to try understanding each other’s perspective.

That makes it all the more remarkable when those moments happen. Many times this past year, student protesters have blocked or interrupted speakers with whom they disagree.

Protesters who prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, caused more than $100,000 in damages. “The Bell Curve” author Charles Murray faced hostile audiences at Vermont’s Middlebury College, the University of Michigan and Harvard University. And when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared at Harvard last month, students held up signs and shouted during her presentation.

None of this suggests universities should be forced to make space for hate speech, white supremacists or speakers who tell lies and false stories. But campuses should be places where students, the public and controversial speakers from across the spectrum can hold difficult conversations. That has happened twice this fall at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Yusef Salaam spoke about racial justice in September. He was among the “Central Park Five” teenagers convicted of a rape in New York City’s Central Park — and later exonerated. His speech didn’t draw protests but did spark a hard conversation about race, the wrongly convicted and police brutality.

This month, Christopher Ruddy spoke about Newsmax.com, the conservative media outlet he founded. He happens to be a confidant of President Donald Trump — and former President Bill Clinton. His Trump connection drew the ire of students upset about the president’s politics, policy decisions about gays, and brash talk about women, among other things. They wanted their concerns to be heard and Ruddy to know how they feel.

Rather than shouting down Ruddy or trying to prevent him from speaking, the students asked to hang a banner in the lobby and wore T-shirts with handwritten slogans. At one point in the presentation, several students rose from their seats and raised their fists in protest. They did this without stopping Ruddy from speaking or preventing others from enjoying the conversation. Only once was a question shouted from the audience; Ruddy took a moment to answer.

At the end of the night, something even better happened. Ruddy mingled with the audience, including several students who had come to protest. He talked with them and answered questions. Everyone walked away having had a chance to be heard.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.