Penn State cancels Proud Boys founder event amid violence

After weeks of promising to allow Gavin McInnes on campus despite heavy student opposition, police concerns override administration’s push to uphold free speech principles

October 25, 2022
Pennsylvania State University
Source: iStock

Pennsylvania State University has cancelled on-campus speeches by right-wing provocateurs, after weeks of refusing to do so on free speech grounds, after police warned of escalating violence in the moments before it was due to begin.

Penn State police “determined that it was necessary to cancel the speaking event in the interest of campus safety”, officials at the nearly 50,000-student campus announced just moments before the scheduled programme headlined by Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, the white nationalist group aligned with Donald Trump and associated with the 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

The moment marked another high-profile challenge for US institutions looking to demonstrate their commitment to free speech in the face of right-wing activists who claim that higher education silences their opinions and then stage events widely seen as likely to emphasise that contention.

Penn State administrators had repeatedly insisted in response to ongoing student criticism that the institution would permit the McInnes speech to take place as long as it remained peaceful. The university also took a position of condemning the viewpoints represented by Mr McInnes and making plans for a simultaneous event that would celebrate diversity and unity and would explain political attempts to undermine fact-based journalism.

“While the type of rhetoric these speakers regularly engage in does not represent the values of Penn State,” the administration said earlier this month in outlining its stance on the McInnes appearance, “our student organisations operate independent of the university and are free to sponsor programmes or speakers of their choosing without censorship.”

But as crowds gathered in the hours leading into the event, and police fielded reports of fights and pepper spray, Penn State called it off.

“The university has been clear that the views and speech of the two speakers at tonight’s student-organisation-hosted event are abhorrent and do not align with the values of Penn State,” the administration said in explaining the decision. “While protest is an acceptable means of expression, it becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas.”

Mr McInnes is a UK-born Canadian national who founded the Proud Boys in 2016 and announced his departure from it in 2018 after the FBI described it as a white nationalist extremist group.

His appearance at Penn State was being organised by Uncensored America, a group founded by Sean Semanko – a Penn State graduate and Trump campaign volunteer – that describes itself as promoting free speech.

It described the planned event as a “politically provocative comedy night” featuring Mr McInnes and “professional troll Alex Stein”, a right-wing comedian known for criticisms of transgender people and Covid precautions. It named the event “Stand Back & Stand By” – a reference to Mr Trump’s encouragement of the Proud Boys during a 2020 presidential debate.

A petition created by a campus group calling itself The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity at Penn State gathered more than 3,000 signatures criticising the university for its plans to allow the event and to let it be funded through student fees.

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Reader's comments (2)

McInnes is a bit more than a "provocateur", he's a fairly successful comedian, entertainer and businessman. "Provocation" is a normal aspect of the political process, as a challenge to routines and assumptions. As for the university administrators' failed attempt to "demonstrate their commitment to free speech in the face of right-wing activists", surely it is the left-wing, egalitarian activists who are trying to stop the event.