Penn State Students Push Back on Event Featuring Proud Boys Founder

A planned comedy event featuring Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is drawing condemnation from Penn State students.
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  • Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is set to appear on Penn State's campus later this month as part of a "provocative comedy night."
  • A petition calling for university officials to block McInnes' appearance had gathered more than 1,800 signatures as of Friday morning.
  • University officials said in a statement that they can't block McInnes' appearance due to the First Amendment and constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
  • Students are planning to protest the event, and university officials are offering alternative events on the same day.

An upcoming comedy show at Pennsylvania State University(Penn State) featuring Gavin McInnes, the founder of the far-right Proud Boys, has drawn condemnations from both students and university leaders — but officials say they can't cancel the event due to free speech concerns.

The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the Proud Boys as a hate group, writing that members and leaders "regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings such as the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia."

McInnes has distanced himself from the Proud Boys in recent years, though The Daily Beast recently reported that he attended the Proud Boys' annual convention in Las Vegas.

McInnes is heading to Penn State as part of an Oct. 24 "provocative comedy night" hosted by the student group Uncensored America, according to the group's website.

The event is free for students, and it also includes paid tickets for guaranteed seating, backstage passes, and a sold-out $99 ticket tier that advertises dinner with McInnes and the event's other speaker, Alex Stein.

The event is being paid for via the University Park Allocation Committee, which designated $7,522.43 for the event, including honoria and airfare for the speakers. The committee chair wrote that "it is not our job to infer what the implications of funding this event are going to be. It is just our job to use the information we have been given to inform our funding decisions."

A petition calling for university officials to stop McInnes' appearance had collected more than 1,800 signatures as of Friday morning.

"'Free Speech' does not mean 'paid speech,' nor does it mean 'platforming fascists and promoting hateful, meritless disinformation with thousands of student-fee dollars,'" the petition by the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity reads.

The committee's petition demands that university officials deny Uncensored America permission to give McInnes a platform at the event.

"We do not accept empty lawyer-speak claiming that Penn State, which has a special legal status, has to pay and platform fascists for 'state funding' — denying permission to pay and platform someone does not violate their 1st amendment rights," the petition reads.

“University officials slammed the event's speakers for rhetoric that ‘has been hateful and discriminatory’ and said their appearance should not be interpreted as an endorsement by Penn State.”
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University officials condemned McInnes' appearance at the event in a statement, but they said their hands are tied when it comes to stopping the event due to First Amendment rights and constitutionally protected free speech.

"As a public university, we are unalterably obligated under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment to protect various expressive rights, even for those whose viewpoints offend our basic institutional values and our personal sensibilities," the statement by university leaders reads.

"While the past statements and actions of these speakers are alarming and can elicit strong reactions from our community, we must continue to uphold the right to free speech — even speech we find abhorrent — because Penn State fully supports the fundamental right of free speech. To do otherwise not only violates the Constitution but would erode the basic freedom each of us shares to think and express ourselves as we wish."

University officials slammed the event's speakers for rhetoric that "has been hateful and discriminatory" and said their appearance should not be interpreted as an endorsement by Penn State.

The university is offering two events as an alternative to the comedy show featuring McInnes, including a lecture by Al Tompkins, a multimedia expert and senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute.

The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity said in the petition that students are planning to directly protest the event featuring McInnes, writing that the protest "does more than saying empty words and hosting distracting, empty, parallel 'educational' events about fascism while Penn State student-fee money and a platform is still materially supporting neofascist violence in our community."

This isn't the first time Penn State students and officials have grappled with a prominent right-wing figure visiting the campus.

Alt-right political commentator Milo Yiannopolis visited the campus last year, according to The Daily Collegian student newspaper, drawing student protests. That event was likewise hosted by Uncensored America.