Opinion: Why we need to still have free speech on campus

(Illustration by Shelbi Bale)

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed below in this article are those of the writer and are not meant to represent the Talisman as a publication.

Kyle Rittenhouse’s upcoming appearance on campus this Wednesday has proven to be controversial, with many social media users angry that the university is allowing him to speak. The reaction to his appearance shows that free speech still needs to have a role on college campuses.

Rittenhouse will appear on WKU’s campus on Wednesday in the DSU Nite Class at 7 p.m. in an event hosted by Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization. 



Rittenhouse became a well-known figure after he shot three men, killing two of them and wounding the third, during a protest against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020, according to an Associated Press article from 2021. Another AP story said that after he was acquitted of his charges in November of 2021, he immediately started making appearances in the media, such as an interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, in which he stated that he was not a racist person and that he supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

First, I must state that I do not endorse Kyle Rittenhouse or what he did. I remember when I first heard about the shooting; I was walking to class and I got a call from my mother, who told me the news. When I got to the classroom, I immediately read as much about what happened as I could. Most of my extended family is from that part of Wisconsin, so I was shocked and appalled by the violence that broke out.

Ever since then, I have wanted answers.

WKU President Timothy Caboni sent an email to all students on Monday explaining why WKU, as a public institution, cannot stop Rittenhouse from speaking on campus.

“As guardians of free speech, universities have an obligation to establish an environment where a wide range of perspectives are exchanged, even if the ideas presented are different from our own,” Caboni said in the email.

He cited Kentucky House Bill 254, also known as the Campus Free Speech Protection Act. The act states, “All students and faculty are allowed to invite guest speakers to campus to engage in free speech regardless of the views of the guest speakers.”

This means that by law, WKU cannot stop Rittenhouse’s appearance. 

And even if WKU could legally prevent Rittenhouse from appearing on campus, the effects of preventing this kind of controversy would likely be negative. The amount of discourse this appearance has led to, even before Rittenhouse has stepped foot on campus, has been an important part of many students’ learning experiences.

If Rittenhouse and other controversial figures wouldn’t speak on campus, it would likely mean that there would be less challenging political discourse on campus. WKU is an institution of higher education, and learning how to deal with events like this is an important part of a well-rounded education. For better or worse, Rittenhouse will be remembered for what happened in August 2020, and for some, hearing his experience from his words might prove to be valuable.

In the same email, Caboni said, “If you disagree with a speaker’s content or character, you have a range of options: attend, listen and question; don’t attend or don’t listen; create counter-programming somewhere else on campus that highlights a different perspective; or make your opposition heard through peaceful protest.”

All of these options fall within the range of the First Amendment. Firstly, it gives students an option to hear Rittenhouse if they so choose, and for whatever reason they choose. But for those who oppose him, they can peacefully protest, which is another important right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Rittenhouse has made an impression with his school visits recently. On Wednesday, March 21, Rittenhouse spoke at the University of Memphis for a half hour, leaving abruptly amid protests, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. His appearance was met with peaceful protest and an increased security presence.


Events like the one in Memphis show that an appearance by Rittenhouse is not inherently dangerous to a campus community. If handled correctly, it can be a way for all sides of the political spectrum and all beliefs to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Whether or not the majority of campus supports and agrees with Rittenhouse and what he stands for, it is still important to hold events like these for those who agree with him, for those who want their thoughts against him to be known, and for those who are undecided and would like to understand the events that have shaped the world we live in. 

Difficult conversations are a very important part of a quality university education, and it is important that WKU is still able to be a place for those conversations to happen.