Students at Pennsylvania State University are in an uproar after thousands of dollars in student fees were allocated for a campus event later this month featuring Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys street gang.
The Oct. 24 event, titled “Stand Back & Stand By,” will feature McInnes and far-right media figure Alex Stein for a comedy hour in which the pair will riff on right-wing grievances such as “political correctness, gender roles, and immigration,” according to a pitch to sponsor the event from campus conservative organization Uncensored America.
Students are protesting the plan over not just McInnes’s history of violent and bigoted rhetoric but also the potential physical threat posed by the Proud Boys. Not only does McInnes maintain a leadership role with the group — which includes members accused of leading the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, among many other violent crimes — but his previous appearances at college campuses and similar conservative events have descended into violence.
“‘Free Speech’ does not mean ‘enabling Gavin McInnes to develop and reinforce right-wing extremist networks while padding his wallet and prestige,’” reads a public petition to university administrators penned by the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity at Penn State. “We demand that the Penn State administration deny Uncensored America permission to sponsor and platform Gavin McInnes with a speaking engagement.”
On Tuesday, the university decried McInnes’s “vitriolic and hateful language” in a statement. Still, it announced that the event would be allowed to continue “because Penn State fully supports the fundamental right of free speech.”
Student Affairs Vice President Damon Sims told HuffPost that administrators were weighing student safety against constitutionally protected speech. He said the school would “respond appropriately as circumstances require.”
“We take every reasonable precaution to protect the safety of those associated with activities on our campuses,” Sims said. “Our commitment to both freedom of expression and the welfare of our community are equally strong, despite the obvious challenges that brings.”
Penn State has hosted far-right personalities before despite student protests. In 2021, Uncensored America hosted Milo Yiannopoulos ― a right-wing personality with a history of bigoted remarks who had recently defended pedophilia ― for a “Pray the Gay Away” event on campus.
But McInnes’ appearance carries a threat of physical violence on top of the hateful rhetoric. At his previous speaking arrangements on college campuses and GOP events, McInnes has brought along members of the Proud Boys, who advocate for political violence. (The highest rank in the Proud Boys organization is earned by “getting arrested or in a significant violent fight for the cause,” McInnes has said.)
In 2017, McInnes brought Proud Boys to his speaking event at New York University, where the gang spent the evening clashing with protesters outside, leading to multiple arrests. Afterward, McInnes was quoted as saying: “My guys are left to fight. And here’s the crucial part: We do. And we beat the crap out of them.”
In 2018, McInnes was invited to speak at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan. His routine included a reenactment of the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a Japanese Socialist Party leader who was killed on live TV by a far-right ultranationalist wielding a samurai sword.
McInnes showed up flanked by a group of Proud Boys and members of a local skinhead gang, who attacked protesters gathering outside. Ten Proud Boys were charged over their role in the assault, and two members were sentenced to four years in prison.
There’s every reason to believe the Proud Boys will be in attendance at the Penn State event. Over the last week, McInnes has been promoting the event ― and poking fun at protesting students ― on Telegram, his primary platform for communicating with members outside his online talk show.
Even the “Stand Back & Stand By” event title is a reference to the gang: It’s a Donald Trump quote from a 2020 presidential debate after the former president was asked to decry the Proud Boys. The gang took Trump’s quote as marching orders, and some began preparations for the insurrection. Dozens of Proud Boys stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and five of their leaders face seditious conspiracy charges by the Justice Department. One of those leaders pleaded guilty last week.
In its press release for the event, Uncensored America described McInnes not as a far-right gang leader but as a “comedian, political commentator, entrepreneur, and fashion pioneer.”
Despite the risk, students vowed to protest the event in person on Oct. 24.
“Stand up, fight back!” reads a flier posted to Instagram by the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity. “Actively challenge PSU admin’s support of McInnes — other, passive university events, which don’t shut down McInnes, are smokescreens that enable neo-fascism.”
Andy Campbell is the author of “We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism,” available where books are sold.