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Penn State is about to host the Proud Boys founder, and its students are protesting

Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is slated to speak at Penn State University later this month — an event that has sparked protest plans and a petition. He's seen here in 2019.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is slated to speak at Penn State University later this month — an event that has sparked protest plans and a petition. He's seen here in 2019.

Penn State University says Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes spouts "hateful and discriminatory" rhetoric — but the school also says a student group has the right to bring McInnes to speak on campus this month, at an event paid for with thousands of dollars in student fees.

Students have launched a petition and plan to protest the Oct. 24 event, seeking to block McInnes and another controversial far-right figure, Alex Stein, from speaking in State College, Pa.

Divisive figures spark a three-way debate

Free-speech guarantees, warns the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity, should not entail "platforming fascists and promoting hateful, meritless disinformation with thousands of student-fee dollars."

But the university's leaders on Tuesday rejected calls to cancel the engagement or ban McInnes and Stein from campus. As they did so, Penn State officials stressed that the school doesn't agree with what it deemed the speakers' "repugnant and denigrating rhetoric."

The event's organizer, the conservative student group Uncensored America, says McInnes and Stein will use comedy to provide "a unique perspective" on issues such as immigration (McInnes is Canadian), political correctness and gender roles.

George Carlin. Dick Gregory. Gavin McInnes?

As it made its case to bring McInnes to campus, Uncensored America compared him to "many great comedians that have come before," according to the minutes of the group's meeting with the University Park Allocation Committee, the student-led group that considers requests to use student-derived funds for events.

The organizers cited McInnes' willingness to "push the boundaries of comedy in a thought-provoking manner" to change how people think.

But his many detractors say there's nothing funny about McInnes or the Proud Boys, whose members call themselves "Western chauvinists" and who have repeatedly been involved in violence. More than two dozen Proud Boy members, including several leaders, have been named in federal charges over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, including accusations of seditious conspiracy.

"McInnes plays a duplicitous rhetorical game: claiming to reject white nationalism while espousing a laundered version of popular white nationalist tropes," says the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labels the Proud Boys a hate group.

Uncensored America has sought to de-emphasize McInnes' ties to the Proud Boys, saying he "stepped down and veered away" from the movement. But it also gave the upcoming event the provocative title, "Stand Back and Stand By" — emphasizing the Proud Boys by quoting former President Trump's famous 2020 message to the group.

McInnes will speak on Oct. 24

General admission to the event is free on a first-come basis, with students getting priority. But attendees can also buy tickets — including a $99 "Royalty" package that guarantees a spot up front and includes a chance to have dinner with McInnes and Stein.

The allocation committee approved $7,522.43 in funds for the "Stand Back and Stand By" event, including airfare for McInnes and Stein and a combined $6,500 in honorarium payments for the pair.

Discussing the funding request, the committee chair noted that their task was to focus on the budget, not the speakers' content or ideology. While the event is "clearly catered toward a particular demographic," they added, "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."

On Oct. 24, the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity plans to hold a protest outside the building where McInnes and Stein will speak. The university is encouraging people on campus to attend alternate events celebrating unity and propaganda awareness, including a speech by Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute titled, "Fighting Truth Decay: How and Why Fakers Fake."

Penn State has dealt with similar uproar over guest speakers before, including an appearance last November by Milo Yiannopoulos, who was also brought in by Uncensored America.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.