Free Speech/Intimate Threat: When the Proud Boys Come to Campus

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On Oct 24, 2022, a group of far-right agitators dressed in all black harassed and assaulted Penn State student demonstrators. The students were protesting the arrival of Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, and Alex Stein, another far-right actor, who were invited speakers by another student group Uncensored America, a pro-free speech organization. To obtain event approval from the student organization’s allocation committee, the organizers described the event as an opportunity to hear “different political viewpoints in a funny and entertaining way” (Owen, 2023). After approving the event, the university released nearly $7,000 to cover flights and honorariums for McInnes and Stein (Owen, 2023).

After the event’s approval, the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity circulated a petition demanding that the Penn State administration deny Uncensored America the ability to host the event on campus. In response, Uncensored America claimed they were nonpartisan and would invite any speaker from any political slant if they promoted free speech. This nonpartisan sentiment seems unlikely, however, given that the club was founded by Sean Semanko who after graduation went on to found Antelope Hill Publishing, which distributes translations of historical works by Nazis, fascists, and ultranationalists and original works by contemporary white nationalists, neo-fascists, and others on the far-right (Wilson, 2022). Antelope’s website also includes children’s books with titles such as “what kind of man will I be.” Given this background and their current actions, it’s unlikely most people would believe this group was actually nonpartisan.

The local community, students, and faculty objected to the talk and stated that the risk for violence was too high, given The Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of the Proud Boys as an exclusively male and extremist hate group known for its white nationalist and alt-right ties, as well as misogynistic rhetoric (SPLC, 2023).  These concerns proved to be justified.

The so-called comedy show, titled “Stand Up and Stand By,” an ode to Donald Trump’s acknowledgment of the Proud Boys during a presidential debate, was canceled by campus police due to “escalating violence” and in the interest of “campus safety.” Shortly before the event was scheduled to begin, disguised Proud Boy acolytes diffused bear spray onto the students. Despite this assault on students, the only arrest for the evening was a Penn State student for failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Riot police, looking on high from horseback, did little to intervene during the assault.

After these events, a student protester carrying a “We Protect Us” sign said they were “more scared than angry” showing up to this protest. The protester continued: “Admin isn’t protecting us, and they’re still willing to host neo-Nazis,”… “Speaking as a gay and trans person… I was afraid going to this event… but going here brings me hope knowing that people want to stand up to this and people want to protect other students” (LaBan, Nguyen and Schafer, 2023).

In response to hosting this event, university administrators denounced the content of the performance by McInnes and Stein, but they stated that public universities are obligated under the First Amendment to protect various expressive rights. Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi stated in a press release that “it is precisely because of this (the university’s) unwavering commitment to free speech that provocative individuals target our campus to deliver speeches.” (Owen, 2022) Bendapudi did condemn the alt-right provocateurs for enflaming the student protestors as a publicity stunt, stating “too many people” will be left with the message that “one can manipulate people to generate free publicity.” However, she admonished the student protestors, asserting they were restricting free speech by escalating protest to violence (Owen 2022).

In the Penn State case, like in many others, one needs to ask whose free speech was restricted? Bendapudi’s condemnation of the protesting students aligns with feminist legal scholar Mary Ann Franks’ assertion that blindly protecting free speech is an “Orwellian inversion” whereby silencing women and racialized peoples is considered free speech, and any resistance to that silencing is considered censorship of those embolden by unrestricted speech (Franks, 2018).

A feminist decolonial approach to security destabilizes the free speech/ censorship binary at the root of many debates about campus safety, especially when alt-right speakers are invited to campus. This lens disrupts masculinist understanding of free speech whereby the hateful speech of some must be defended to protect the free speech of all. The First Amendment secures free speech for cis white men, fails to protect women and racialized people, and, in fact, sacrifices and silences them in the most intimate ways. For example, free speech advocacy focuses on affirmatively providing outlets for violent expression and blocks attempts to mitigate intimate forms of abuse, “including cyberstalking, harassment, misogynist propaganda, and revenge porn” (Franks, 2018).

Despite the mythology of universities as sanctuaries of political expression, intersectional campus life can be isolating and violent. A place of devaluation for students who are at risk of trauma by their identities as LGBTQA+, non-gender binary individuals, women, students of color, and as first-generation college students. Lives are on the line for students who are overly burdened with trauma, hate, and suffering (Wood, 2020). For these groups, university practices for so-called protection and safety can have traumatic outcomes when militarized protections are employed in the name of free speech versus the freedom to be heard (see Ortiz et al).

A feminist decolonial approach provides the university with a praxis on how to “deracialize and depatriarchalize the politics of protection?” (Vergès, 2022, p. 5). This praxis is critical if we envision new forms of security and decolonial protections that are not rooted in repression and paternalism (Vergès, 2022). This is a vision of protection that does not eliminate conflict, as conflict and contradiction are inherent within philosophical differences. This decolonial and feminist vision of security is also not viewed through the “female victim/ male perpetrator prism” while acknowledging that the latter is without question in countless cases (Vergès, 2022, p. 4). This lens of protection denaturalizes violence and power and protects the vulnerable “without turning them into victims and without considering weakness a failure” (Vergès, 2022, p. 7). There are no snowflakes in this decolonial feminist vision of protection.

Women and racialized people are continually told that ensuring the free speech rights of anyone, including a racist or misogynist, secures them the same rights. This form of what Mary Ann Franks refers to as First Amendment fundamentalism is insensitive to the history of intimate trauma that a decolonial feminist vision recognizes as critical to a sense of belonging (Franks, 2018). The threat of white male violence from ideologies of groups such as the Proud Boys “chill” women and racialized groups everywhere “in public, in private, at work, at home in the street, and online” (Franks, 2018, p. 22). The refusal to recognize power asymmetries silences the voices of women and racialized groups, and as a result, their free speech goes unheard. However, a feminist decolonial approach to university administration can push us through the status quo of this free speech/ censorship impasse to challenge our critical perspectives of protection and safety. A feminist decolonial approach offers spaces of plurality that recognize social, cultural, and historical context and enables us to create spaces of collective understandings of security.

Best practices are available on what to do when the alt-right comes to your campus. These playbooks can offer strategies such as hosting alternative events for students so not to fuel more publicity for the alt-right. However, some of the practices suggest that members of targeted groups approach members of the host student group and explain why they find the event to be offensive and hurtful. This practice, while laudable for its emphasis on dialogue, is problematic because it places the responsibility for change onto groups whose intimate lives are targeted by hate groups. The practice also assumes a “one size fits all” for all speakers. Mia Bloom, who researches the far-right, speaks to the varying levels of threat that can impact student lives: “I mean, Yiannopoulos is offensive and kind of a clown,” …” But Gavin McInnes is actually dangerous. This event is deliberately provocative. It’s not a free speech issue if it endangers the student community” (Empson, 2022).

Rigid interpretations by campus administrators of the First Amendment increases the potential for violent outcomes on campus. The Penn State community recently learned that more proposals for alt-right speakers, including Alex Stein, have been submitted to the student allocation committee. This new round of challenges to campus security prompted administrators to release a five-page document that universally protects the rights of hateful speech: “Penn State considers the right to free speech and expression essential to our mission of improving society.”

Universalism never improves society. Instead, the Penn State administration finds comfort in resting on Western understandings of free speech and does little to destabilize the male/masculine and white/Western epistemologies that have come to dominate our campus lives. A decolonial feminist approach is desperately needed to encourage the acceptance of other ways of working, organizing, and, most importantly, protecting our equally valued communities.

 

 

References

Empson, Olivia Rose, (2022). “Penn State students outraged over invitation to far-right Proud Boys founder,” The Guardian, Oct 23

Franks, M. A. (2018). “Beyond ‘Free Speech for the White Man’: Feminism and the First Amendment,” Research Handbook on Feminist Jurisprudence (Cynthia Bowman & Robin West, eds., Elgar’s Legal Theory Research Encyclopedia Series, University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-27.

LaBan, Arthur, Nguyen, J., & Schafer, A. (2022). They did nothing’ | Penn State students, protesters gather in opposition of Uncensored America event, The Collegian www.collegian.psu.edu/news/they-did-nothing-penn-state-students-protesters-gather-in-opposition-of-uncensored-america-event/article_53ab3752-540c-11ed-8e6d-87622ca72dd1.html

Owen, T. (2022). What Really Happened at the Penn State Protest Against Proud Boys Founder Gavin McInnes, Vice News, www.vice.com/en/article/epzqww/penn-state-proud-boys-gavin-mcinnes.

Ortiz, M., Noroña, B., Dowler, L., Inwood, J. (In Press). “Placing Peace: The Pedagogies of Positive Peace and Environmental Justice.” In Colin Flint and Kara Dempsey (Eds.), Making Geographies of Peace and Conflict, New York, Routledge

Vergès, Françoise, 2022,  A Decolonial Feminism, Pluto Press, New York

Wilson, J. Far-Right Student Organization Brings Extremist McInnes, Doyle to Penn State and Tennessee, Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2022/10/20/far-right-student-organization-brings-extremists-mcinnes-doyle-penn-state-and-tennessee

Wood, J.  2020. Teaching Students at the Margins: A Feminist Trauma-informed Care Pedagogy. In. Lessons from the Pandemic: Trauma-Informed Approaches to College, Crisis, ed. P. Thompson and J. Carello, 23-38. East Tennessee State University: Palgrave Macmillan.

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