Editor’s Note: An individual interviewed for this story has had their name changed to protect their identity, and verified through fact-checking, the anonymous individual interviewed for this story is a Penn State student.
The First Amendment requires universities like Penn State to allow speakers of all ideologies on campus when invited by student organizations — regardless of whether the university’s policies align with the speech. However, the university can use its discretion in determining if the speakers present a threat of imminent violence that outweighs the right to free speech.
On Oct. 24, an event planned by Uncensored America with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and comedian Alex Stein was canceled an hour before the event’s start because of “escalating violence” at a protest outside of the Thomas Building.
According to a release, the university “determined that it was necessary to cancel the speaking event in the interest of campus safety” after the protest turned violent. Multiple students were maced during the protest.
Proud Boys is a right-wing extremist group established in 2016 by Gavin McInnes in the midst of the presidential election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They describe themselves as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
The group, known for a violent agenda that’s primarily misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration, is recognized as a terrorist group in Canada, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Uncensored America, the group that invited McInnes to speak, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting for freedom of speech, according to Penn State’s OrgCentral, and last year, Uncensored America hosted Milo Yiannopoulos for its “Pray the Gay Away” event.
Four days before the event, the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity sent an email to all students calling on them to join a student-organized “Stand Up, Fight Back” protest outside of the Thomas Building two hours before the scheduled start of the event.
“We cannot allow the administration’s betrayal to go unchallenged, or else they will only do worse to us — we need to show them that it costs to betray students,” the email read.
The email stated McInnes was coming to Penn State to “recruit and build a neofascist network” through the event and to “embolden existing white supremacist elements in State College.”
Penn State’s Student Programming Association planned a counter-program, “Together We Are” and encouraged students to attend this event rather than protesting. SCDS described the event in its email as “a cover-up operation, hiding the fact that Penn State is deciding to pay and platform white supremacists.”
Jessica Markovich, director of events at SPA, said about 18 different student organizations came to Together We Are, and about 600 people attended.
“I think it provided another alternative to people who wanted to step away from the hateful rhetoric that was going on in another place on campus…for those who didn’t want to protest but still wanted to be surrounded by a community,” Markovich (junior-telecommunications and media industries) said.
An email from Damon Sims, the vice president of Student Affairs, was sent to all students later that day in response to SCDS’s email, encouraging students “not to take the bait” by directly confronting the speakers. He said in his email that the invitation for confrontation by SCDS was “irresponsible.”
“But the fundamental freedom of thought and expression protected by the First Amendment obligates a public university to allow even speakers with whom it most strongly disagrees, when those speakers are invited by the faculty or a recognized student organization,” Sims said in the email.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression made a statement on the cancellation of the event, stating, “Allowing threats and acts of violence to shut down First Amendment activity only incentivizes more violence and less speech, particularly when the government has already ‘firmly denounced’ the speakers and labeled their views ‘abhorrent.’”
Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, said via email that by canceling the event, Penn State “punished” speakers and protesters who were “acting peacefully.” She said it would have been “easy” for the police to remove the “few people resorting to violence.”
Penn State, according to Morey, is sending a “terrible message” that students might be physically assaulted while exercising their right to speak on campus, “and the university will stand by and watch.”
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“This sends the wrong message to students — suggesting that those who threaten or engage in violence have ultimate power to shut down speakers they disagree with,” Morey said.
She said a wide range of views — “even hateful or offensive ones” — should be expected on a public campus.
Together We Are, intended to discourage the violence that Morey speaks of, mirrors last year’s “Love is Louder” event hosted by The Jeffrey A. Conrad Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity in opposition to Uncensored America’s “Pray the Gay Away” event.
Last November, Uncensored America planned a presentation by British alt-right commentator Yiannopoulos, who refers to himself as “the world’s most fabulous supervillain,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Prior to the event, Penn State denounced the messages of Yiannopoulos, and Sims said in a message that the speaker was “offensive and hurtful” with values “antithetical to Penn State’s that ‘deliberately create controversy, hurt and disruption.”
Sims recommended in the message that students “ignore” Yiannopoulos, as he said this is the “most effective way possible” to make one’s opposition known.
In this case, another a student-organized protest ensued outside of the Thomas Building, which included members of the Penn State Students Against Sexist Violence — now the SCDS — but this protest didn’t result in the cancellation of the event like the most recent Uncensored America event.
Yiannopoulos revealed during his presentation that Uncensored America was formed solely to organize his event, which was two years in the making.
Yiannopoulos received almost $18,000 in honoraria for the event, according to the University Park Allocation Committee; however, the total amount he acquired for speaking was near $24,000 due to an outside donation.
There have been other times in the past, however, when the university decided the threat of violence resulting from these controversial speakers outweighed their right to speak on campus.
In 2017, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s request for a speaking engagement on campus was denied due to the risk of imminent violence, according to The Washington Post.
Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, wasn’t permitted to speak at the university because of “violence and tragedy” that occurred in Charlottesville.
Earlier that year, a “Unite the Right” rally that Spencer was involved in resulted in a violent clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters. A vehicle drove into a crowd of counter-protesters — killing one and injuring dozens.
Two troopers were also killed after a helicopter that was monitoring the protest crashed.
Lawrence Miller, chair of the University Park Student Fee Board, said because Spencer was the leader of his organization, it was expected his followers would come to Penn State too if Spencer was permitted on campus.
As Morey said, “The First Amendment, which applies in full at Penn State, strikes this balance, by placing only criminal speech, like, for example, true threats, obscenity and defamation, out of bounds.”
Many students have questioned the financial logistics of events like these and how funding is used to support speakers whose ideologies many don’t agree with.
After the cancellation of the event, the University Park Student Fee Board released “Moving Forward,” a letter describing how the UPSFB makes allocation decisions.
In the letter, the UPSFB said “the university doesn’t have to fund every other organization exactly XX dollars and instead can allocate based on need, amongst other factors.”
The letter also cites Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia — a Supreme Court case that found that “while universities can charge students a mandatory student fee, the group that allocates those fees must do so viewpoint-neutrally.”
Miller (sophomore-law), chair of the UPSFB, wrote the letter. He said a lot of frustration and misplaced anger from the past couple of weeks is going toward UPAC, which “wasn’t their fault,” as allocating funds is their job, and they “had nothing to do with the fact that Uncensored America exists.”
“I thought it was handled terribly,” Miller said in regard to the planned Uncensored America event and the protest. He said he felt that the administration was “trying to pin students against each other.”
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Miller said speakers invited by student organizations must be approved by UPAC, following UPAC procedures which follow those of the fee board.
Alexa Clayton, chair of UPAC, said the goal of UPAC is to help “facilitate out-of-class experiences” for student organizations.
According to Clayton, the McInnes and Stein event cost about $7,500. McInnes was paid $5,000 to come to Penn State, and Stein was paid $1,500.
Student organizations are given $20,000 per year to spend yearly on programming. Each event or program can be funded no more than 90% by UPAC.
Clayton said UPAC’s “hands are tied” because of the Supreme Court precedent the university must follow.
Sims explained further how the process of inviting speakers works at Penn State.
“There is a significant difference between ‘hosting’ a speaker and simply having a speech occur on campus, and recognized student organizations are legally independent entities,” Sims said.
He said faculty groups, student organizations and administrative units all host speakers, and invited speakers on campus are “nearly a daily occurrence.” Only when a university entity invites the speaker is it accurate to say the speaker is “hosted by Penn State.”
Amidst the confusion and controversy surrounding the invitation of the Proud Boys’ founder and Yiannopoulos, it’s unclear to many students as to who Uncensored America is.
Sean Semanko, a 2020 Penn State graduate, is the founder of Uncensored America at Penn State, and he said the goal of the organization is to empower young people to fight for free speech.
“The point of college is to hear different perspectives,” Semanko said.
He said he wishes to bring back “free speech culture” from the 1980s and ‘90s when, as Semanko put it, “you could crack whatever joke you wanted without being worried about being fired from your job.”
He said he feels that people these days are not being canceled for a good reason, and hate speech “isn’t a real thing” but “a made-up concept by activists.”
“There’s some things a lot of people agree are mean or wrong, but there’s no imminent threat to anything that’s hateful per se,” Semanko said. “You can easily beat it in the marketplace of ideas with better ideas.”
However, an organizer of the SCDS protest who wished to remain anonymous, said they think this is a “baseless argument” — that the recent events aren’t about an argument of free speech because violence ensued.
They said there were about 200-300 people at the protest, and it was set up to be “a peaceful demonstration, but still militant and confrontational.”
They said things became “agitated” once Stein came into the crowd. They said police watched as a Proud Boy pulled out a can of bear mace and began macing protesters.
They said the cops “let the [violence] happen,” and when the cops came into the crowd on horses, they thought people were going to be “trampled.”
The most recent statement made by Penn State police regarding the protest and event cancellation was made on Oct. 25, which said “given the agitated demonstrators, at least one known physical altercation, a crowd surge toward the building, and chemical spray of the crowd and officers, taken altogether,” according to Charlie Noffsinger, associate vice president for University Police and Public Safety.
“It was a safety risk to continue to move forward,” Noffsinger said.
One student was arrested during the protest for disorderly conduct and defiant trespass.
“We know the cops aren’t there to protect us,” the anonymous student said. “But, we thought they were trying to protect Penn State’s brand a little more than they were.”