Dillon characterizes Rigell as someone who has grown “increasingly militant toward conservative Christians. He seems to genuinely hate us,” he says.
Rigell doesn’t deny that his views have grown more liberal over the years, but he maintains it wasn’t hate but concern that prompted him to ask PBA to reconsider hosting Dillon in the chapel two days before the event.
Prompted by some former students, Rigell drew the school’s attention to a comment Dillon made on a viral video showing protesters surrounding and attacking a car in Los Angeles. Dillon tweeted, “Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization.” Rigell asked the school, “Is this really who you chose to come speak in chapel on campus on family weekend?” He later suggested a speech limited to business students or the campus comedy club would be more appropriate.
In an all-too familiar scene, the exchange quickly grew into a social media feeding frenzy. Some PBA students, along with approximately 200 Twitter users with no apparent connection to the school, joined Rigell’s call, asking the university to move Dillon’s speaking engagement out of the chapel or cancel it altogether. Other students, joined by an army of Babylon Bee fans, took Dillon’s part. The exchanges grew uglier as some accused Dillon’s supporters of being pro-segregation, others mocked Rigell’s struggle with depression, and a host of people ridiculed one another with the Twitter taunt du jour: “cry more.”
The number of formal email complaints the school received, however, was small. Dillon said administrators told him it was about 40, but school officials didn’t answer my questions about it.
The next morning, director of alumni relations Steve Eshelman emailed Dillon and asked if he would be willing to skip the speech portion of the program in favor of a stand-alone Q&A. Eshelman said he felt this would be a smoother option but denied it had anything to do with the Twitter dustup. Meanwhile, Dillon continued arguing online with Rigell, left-leaning PBA students, and snarky rubberneckers about whether their demands qualified as cancel culture.
A few hours later, the day before he was scheduled to speak, Eshelman and PBA’s vice president of advancement, Laura Bishop, called Dillon to tell him the school had made the decision to move his event out of the chapel to a smaller venue, the library rotunda. Bishop’s choice of words echoed Rigell and the other protesters—she said the school wanted to preserve the sacredness of the space. Dillon took that to mean the school now viewed him as someone who would taint the chapel by speaking in it.
“What had I done or said to justify moving me away from the chapel? It was very offensive,” he said. Rather than speak in the rotunda, Dillon declined to speak at all. “I told them, ‘If I’m not welcome in your chapel, I don’t feel comfortable on your campus.’”
When I asked Dillon if the tweet that sparked the firestorm referred to Black Lives Matter the organization or general protests under their banner, he said it could apply to either. He defines terrorism as an attempt to intimidate the public through violence or threats of violence in order to advance a political agenda: “Members of both the BLM organization and the broader movement have routinely sought to advance their respective, and often overlapping, agendas by engaging in calls for violence, acts of violence, and intimidation,” he said. “Mine is not a criticism of skin color, or peaceful protesters of any color, but of violent criminal behavior which has become increasingly commonplace with the growth of the BLM movement and the influence of the BLM organization.”
It’s a sentiment that was sure to stoke outrage among some PBA students. Still, the school has hosted chapel speakers whom those on the other end of the political spectrum would find similarly provocative, like Color of Compromise author Jemar Tisby. Tisby also posts pointed political rhetoric to social media, like discouraging black Christians from writing for white Christian outlets. Before participating in a panel on racial justice in the chapel in February, Tisby expressed discomfort at the speed with which Botham Jean’s brother forgave his killer and argued that proponents of social justice should not engage with those making Bible-based arguments against it.
A key difference between Dillon’s event and Tisby’s was that Dillon’s conservative views were not going to be on the agenda. Dillon was going to give a comparatively bland talk on how the university prepared him for his career and how he integrates his faith into his work. (Dillon showed me a copy of the agenda he developed with Eshelman.)
Bishop told me in an email that the school hoped moving Dillon’s talk would allow him to have a deeper discussion with students. “At no time did PBA cancel his speaking engagement,” she said. She admitted the school did not communicate well to Dillon the reasons for the change: “He has since shared how deeply this hurt him. PBA leadership apologized to him for this hurt.”
Dillon said Bishop’s explanation doesn’t align with what she and other administrators told him: “Nobody put this positive spin on it as an opportunity to have a different conversation when they spoke to me about it. What I got was a call saying the chapel is too sacred for you, we have to move you.”
After a tense pre-chapel lunch Dillon kept even though his event had been canceled, administrators took him to the campus bookstore where they offered him a PBA T-shirt. “Sorry we caved to cancel culture and disrespected you publicly,” he laughs. “Here’s a free shirt with our logo on it!”
Rigell and others who argued for Dillon’s talk to be moved don’t see it that way. “Conservative trolls like Seth live for this fake persecution [obscenity],” he tweeted. “It’s like torture porn for them. Dude you didn’t get cancelled, you’re still a millionaire and drive a G wagon, you just didn’t get to act a fool in chapel.”