As the academic year theme of freedom of expression continues to test the limits of speech on campus, Cornell Republicans brought conservative political commentator Michael Knowles to campus in an event that was met by a receptive packed auditorium and a vigil outside the venue where students called Knowles a “sick man.”
Knowles, known for being a host on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, led a lecture on “The Mirage of Free Speech” at a campus event sponsored by the Cornell Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation on Monday, Nov. 6. Knowles spoke to a full audience of more than 260 Cornellians, as some students without tickets on the standby line were turned away. Thirty minutes prior to the event, Cornell Progressives held a “Vigil for Trans Lives” — which attracted approximately 60 students by its conclusion — as a direct response to previous remarks made by Knowles against transgender people, said organizer Evan Sunshine ’24.
“The organizers do not condone anybody who is going in to put a stomp on the freedom of expression — it’s the year of freedom of expression, sure he has the freedom to speak his mind in a closed Republican space organized by Cornell students — that’s his right,” Sunshine said. “But we also have a right to congregate outside of the room and hold a peaceful vigil in honor of the trans lives that he condemns.”
Knowles was quoted at the Conservative Political Action Conference last March saying that “transgenderism must be eradicated” from public life, and he has frequently used campus visits to espouse hateful rhetoric against transgender people. Knowles did not respond to two requests for comment prior to the event.
At the vigil, students held electric tea light candles and gave testimony about the many obstacles transgender people face, including being ostracized by their families, being ridiculed online and elevated risks of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Sunshine shared that as a transgender man, he was the target of threats after a video of him crying about the discrimination he faced as a Starbucks employee went viral last October — including by Knowles, who posted a video calling Sunshine a “troubled person” with a “severe mental illness.”
The presence of a conservative figure on campus prompted many to recall when students protested and disrupted Ann Coulter ’84, a conservative media pundit, in an event last November. When Coulter was introduced, one student played “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fučík — commonly known as the Circus Theme. Students consistently interrupted her speech, shouting obscenities and phrases such as, “We don’t want your ideas here! Leave! Leave!” Coulter ended her intended hour-long event in 20 minutes.
According to Nic Oke ’26, co-president of Haven — Cornell’s LGBTQ student union — some students who interrupted Coulter faced disciplinary actions from the University under the Student Code of Conduct, which prohibits “substantially obstructing or interfering with the lawful exercise of freedom of speech.”
This protest now comes in the academic theme year of “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.” When justifying the theme year, President Martha Pollack said in a University-wide email: “As we witness assaults on free expression and academic freedom from both ends of the political spectrum, it is vitally important that we, as a community of scholars, engage deeply with these values and the issues that can emerge in upholding them.”
To kick off the event, Dean of Students Marla Love reminded participants that Cornell values free and open inquiry and strives to create a community where diverse opinions can be expressed and heard.
“As provided in University policy, the speaker has a right to speak without intimidation, and the audience has the right to hear what the speaker has to say,” Love said.
Rodge Reschini ’24, president of the Cornell Republicans, introduced Knowles by painting a dire picture of the state of free expression at Cornell and imploring his peers to engage with opposing ideas.
“Cornell fails when it graduates students who cannot suffer the existence of opposition. So many of our classmates are distraught by the mere idea of sharing a zip code with the people to whom they disagree,” Reschini said. “We believe that our values and perspectives are worth fighting for and that they must be heard.”
Reschini and Cornell Republicans did not answer questions provided by The Sun.
Knowles began his speech by addressing and denouncing the recent antisemitic threats made on campus by Patrick Dai ’24, likening him to Hamas. He continued by saying that conservative expression was under attack and those who silence them should be punished, too.
Knowles also directly addressed Sunshine as students continued their vigil well into the event.
“I understand there was a trans solidarity protest outside the venue led by a gal who went viral for complaining about working at Starbucks,” Knowles said, misgendering Sunshine.
Knowles expressed his surprise about the lack of resistance he received at Cornell, which he called “one of the early hubs of leftist violence on campus,” referring to the Willard Straight Hall takeover of 1969 when Black students brought guns into the building and protested against the University’s slow progress in establishing a Black studies program.
Knowles is no stranger to receiving pushback from college students. Last spring, he was met with protests at multiple universities as he conducted the first leg of his campus tours, including at Purdue University and the University of Buffalo. At the University of Pittsburgh, students organized down the street of Knowles’ speech and even set an effigy of Knowles on fire.
Knowles went on to discuss what he sees as parallels between the Israel-Hamas war and the actions of domestic groups, such as elements of the Black Lives Matter movement. He referenced a now-deleted tweet posted by the organization’s Chicago chapter depicting a Palestinian paraglider and the words “I Stand with Palestine,” which depicted now discredited photos and videos. He claimed the post was an endorsement of Hamas’s attack on Israel.
After his speech, Knowles answered questions from students spanning from the federal child tax credit to a statement he made earlier this year suggesting that President Biden “is a far more evil ruler than either Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.” When asked, Knowles said he stood by his words, referencing the “ridiculous ideology” of transgenderism, forced sterilizations and abortions in America.
Concurrent to the event, Haven hosted a “safe space” event at the LGBT Resource Center, with activities including an educational event on protesting, a group narrative space and a craft-making session. Co-president Piper Kohlenberger ’25 told The Sun that it is “essential to recognize the harms being perpetuated against Cornell’s transgender community through Michael Knowles’ presence on campus today” in a written statement.
Jill Muszynski ’24, who participated in the vigil, said that its intention was to increase awareness surrounding transgender issues on campus.
“We just want to make sure that people see us and see [transgender] lives as at stake at Cornell University and understand that ‘Hey, we are here. We are a sizable portion of this campus,’” Muszynski said.
With an event meant to create discussion surrounding the freedom of expression on campus, participants and vigil attendees alike could agree that Knowles’ presence on campus brought lively debate.
“We believe that the students coming out of Cornell — the doctors, scientists, engineers, politicians and, yes, even hotel administrators of tomorrow — must hear the perspectives and opinions held by millions of their fellow countrymen, especially the views with which they disagree,” Reschini said. “We will not last long as one nation if we cannot learn to live with each other.”
Evan Liberman ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].