Penn State cancels on-campus comedy show featuring Proud Boys founder citing ‘threat of escalating violence’

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Gavin McInnes takes part in an Alt Right protest of Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour on May 25, 2017 in New York City
Gavin McInnes takes part in an Alt Right protest of Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour on May 25, 2017 in New York City

  • Penn State cancelled an on-campus comedy show on Monday due to a “threat of escalating violence.”
  • The event featured Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group.
  • Students had been pressuring the university for weeks to cancel the event.

The Pennsylvania State University cancelled a comedy show on Monday night featuring Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, due to a “threat of escalating violence” after hundreds of people showed up to protest the event. 

About an hour before the event was to begin, the university issued a statement, saying it was necessary to cancel the speaking event in the interest of campus safety as “demonstrations regrettably turned violent.”  

Pete Kurtz-Glovas, a grad student at Penn State who attended the event, said at its peak, the crowd grew into what he estimated was hundreds of people. He told Insider that at one point during the protest, someone pepper sprayed a number of people in the crowd. 

Kurtz-Glovas said he was proud that the university decided to cancel the event, even if they waited until the last minute to do it. 

“I was concerned that this would lead to violence and it seemed that they shared the same concern in the eleventh hour so that was I think a good move on their part,” he said. 

Students demanded that the event be canceled

For weeks, students at Penn State had been demanding that the administration cancel the event featuring McInnes.

A petition created by The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity at Penn State criticized the university for allowing McInnes on campus and using student fees to pay for the event. “Free Speech does not mean paid speech,” according to the petition which has garnered over 3,o00 signatures.

The event on October 24 was called “Stand Back & Stand By” — a nod to former President Donald Trump’s comments about the Proud Boys during a presidential debate in September 2020 — and is hosted by the Penn State chapter of Uncensored America, a group that calls itself a free speech organization.

McInnes is the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, some of whose members said they planned to “kill people” during the January 6 insurrection, according to internal emails released by the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot.

In 2018, McInnes declared he was distancing himself from the group, saying he was quitting, after the FBI categorized the Proud Boys as an extremist group and having ties to white nationalism, according to The Guardian.

The group was declared a terrorist organization in 2021 by the Canadian government and labeled a hate group by The Southern Poverty Law Center. During the January 6 insurrection, members of the Proud Boys breached the Capitol and were charged with seditious conspiracy, a crime that can result in up to 20 years in prison.

According to Sean Semanko, the founder of Uncensored America, the event is a comedy night featuring Alex Stein and McInnes.

Stein is a right-wing comedian, who was accused of sexually harassing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol, calling her his “favorite big booty Latina.”

Before the event was canceled, he told Insider he’s grateful Penn State was going to follow through with upholding the First Amendment and said he wants the protestors there. 

Uncensored America received $7,522.43 from The University Park Allocation Committee, a student group that provides funding for student events and makes its decisions independent of the University. That money was slated to cover Stein and McInnes’ hotel and airfare as well as provide them with a financial honorarium, according to Uncensored America.

University cited First Amendment

On October 11, the university issued a statement in response to Uncensored America inviting Stein and McInnes to University Park. The institution said that as a public university, it is obligated under the US Constitution’s First Amendment to protect various expressive rights, even for those whose viewpoints it doesn’t agree with.

“Once again, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of sharing space with individuals whose views differ dramatically from our University’s values of inclusion, diversity, equity, and respect,” the statement said.

In a statement to Insider, Vic Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the First Amendment protects the university’s right to host McInnes as a speaker, just as the First Amendment protects protesters’ right to criticize the university and demonstrate against his visit.

“Colleges and universities are supposed to be the ultimate marketplaces of different ideas,” Walczak said.

People walk by Old Main on the Penn State University main campus on Nov. 9, 2017 in State College, Pa.
People walk by Old Main on the Penn State University main campus on Nov. 9, 2017 in State College, Pa.

In a letter to the editor published by the school’s newspaper, The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity pushed back on the university’s response and referenced the administration’s actions in 2017 when they denied Richard Spencer, an alt-right figure and white nationalist per SPLC, permission to speak.

At the time, Eric Barron, Penn State’s past president said, “the First Amendment does not require our University to risk imminent violence,” according to The Washington Post

When asked by Insider whether Penn State would provide comment on students’ demands the event be canceled, the university reiterated the First Amendment.

“As a public institution of higher education, Penn State considers the right to free speech and expression essential to our mission — regardless of how hurtful, revolting, and offensive the speech may be,” the statement said. 

An organizer with The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity, who asked Insider to withhold their name for fear of retribution, said the organization sent a mass email to students on Thursday to participate in an upcoming protest they are hosting on Monday called “Stand Up, Fight Back.” 

In response to the committee’s email, the university sent out its own email which Insider reviewed, calling the student group “provocateurs” and imploring students “not to take the bait” and attend the protest. Instead, it urged students to attend one of its counter-programming events.

‘There’s never violence at these shows that is from us’

Last November, Uncensored America hosted Milo Yiannopoulos, a British alt-right political commentator, who gave a speech called “Pray the Gay Away.”

Lauren Ogden, the president of United Socialists at Penn State, said their frustration with the university has been building since it allowed Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in 2021. 

“Penn State is really fighting a losing battle on this one. They’re on the wrong side,” Ogden told Insider.

When asked what he’ll be talking about at the show, McInnes told Insider he’s going to “attack” academia and the professors at Penn State. He added that he doesn’t know whether members of the Proud Boys, which he called the “greatest fraternity in the world,” will be at the event on the 24th.

“There’s never violence at these shows that is from us,” he said. 

Past speaking events McInnes has been part of have resulted in people getting hurt. In 2018, outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York where McInnes was venerating a far-right Japanese assassin, members of the Proud Boys assaulted counter-protesters outside. 

October 24, 2022, 5:59 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to reflect that there were protests and the event was canceled.

Read the original article on Business Insider