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UM System president defends UMKC chancellor before Missouri House committee

Protester arrested during speaker’s anti-transgender talk at UMKC

Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.
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Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.

University of Missouri System President Mun Choi told lawmakers Wednesday he will not fire University of Missouri-Kansas City Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal, the target of social media outrage and conservative punditry over his response to an attack on a conservative campus speaker by a student.

“I have felt confident about his commitment to freedom of expression,” Choi said, of Agrawal. “He did not cancel that speech. He also said he’s inclusive of all those who attend the University of Missouri.”

Lawmakers have threatened to cut UMKC’s budget and one state senator has called for Agrawal’s dismissal. With Choi at his side, he appeared before the Missouri House Committee on Governmental Oversight Wednesday so state representatives could question the two about Agrawal’s response to last Thursday’s incident.

That night, Michael Knowles, 29, who hosts a show at the conservative Daily Wire website, was 20 minutes into an anti-transgender speech entitled “Men Are not Women,” at Royall Hall when audience members began to boo and some walked out. Then a person with a toy water gun attempted to approach Knowles and sprayed a liquid in his direction.

The student was arrested and later charged with disturbing the peace, assault on law enforcement, property damage and resisting arrest.

The liquid turned out to be a mix of lavender oil and nontoxic household liquids, according to police. The color and scent of lavender have been adopted by the LGBTQ community as a symbol for transgender solidarity.

Agrawal released a statement after the incident, saying Knowles, who had been invited by the campus groups Young Americans for Freedom and UMKC College Republicans, .was “a speaker whose professed opinions do not align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion...”

He also acknowledged that treatment of Knowles “crossed a line,” and affirmed the school’s commitment to free speech. “UMKC must maintain a safe environment in which all points of view, even extreme ones, are allowed to be heard.”

After a weekend of criticism that his response did not forcefully defend Knowles’ rights to free speech, Agrawal another statement Monday, in which he apologized for his first statement.

“My original statement may have given an indication that UMKC does not support freedom of expression for all. I apologize if I’ve given that impression, for that was not my intention. It is not the university’s role to take sides, but to rise to the higher principle of promoting a respectful exchange of ideas for our students to form their own views and engage in critical thinking.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers picked apart Agrawal’s initial response and questioned whether he wrote each statement. Committee chairman Robert Ross, R-Houston, said he would like Agrawal to supply the committee with emails surrounding the preliminary drafts of the response.

The incident struck an apparent raw nerve with Republican members of the committee, who saw it as part of a national movement to suppress conservative speech on campuses.

“I’m seeing time and time again, where - whether it’s Melissa Click or other professors across the nation -- that this OK in our youth and that’s when we are seeing the uprising of those that are intolerant and not willing to have a civil disagreement,” state Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said.

Click was fired from the University of Missouri-Columbia after she participated in 2015 protests against racism and asked for “muscle” to repel a journalist.

Choi said the actions by one person shouldn’t “cloud the entire organization.” He noted that attacks on speakers, of any viewpoint, happen rarely in the UM system.

“We have thousands of lectures that happen each year,” Choi said. “This is very unusual.”

Agrawal noted that before the speech, there had been pressure by student groups for him to cancel it.

“My clear message to them was the speaker will come and the speaker will speak,” Agrawal said.

For the students who wanted to protest peacefully outside of the venue, they were given the space, as well, Agrawal said.

“I, for one, am not about disrupting a speech,” Agrawal said. “Protesters can take it elsewhere.”

Lawmakers asked Agrawal to opine on his views of Knowles’ speech, which included disparaging statements about transgender people.

Agrawal said he had not watched the entire speech, only clips in which police reacted. When he spoke of “extreme views” in his initial statement, he said he was not speaking specifically about Knowles’ viewpoint.

State Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Democrat whose district covers the University of Missouri-Columbia, said he thought Agrawal handled the event well. The student who attacked was not only charged criminally, but removed from campus and faces possible expulsion.

“Social media keeps everything at a boiling point these days and there’s very little room for civil discourse these days,” Kendrick said, of the reaction.

State Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, said UMKC wasn’t doing enough to teach its students about free speech rights.

“If you have a large number of students coming out that don’t value freedom of expression, free speech, that’s indicative on you all,” Deaton said. “Maybe you are trying now, but try harder.”

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.