Penn State pulled the plug on a speaking event hosted by far-right Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes less than an hour before it was set to take place on Monday, citing a “threat of escalating violence.” Administrators admonished McInnes’ allies for instigating unrest, but it multiple statements also slammed the students protesting, some of whom were pepper sprayed on their own campus.
Students had been calling for the event’s cancellation for weeks, citing McInnes and the Proud Boys’ history of provocation and violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled the Proud Boys a hate group, and several of its members were charged with sedition for their actions around the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. The university defended their decision to approve the event by citing their status as a public university that is “unalterably obligated under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to protect various expressive rights..”
According to reporters attending the protest, supporters of McInnes, clad in black protective gear and masking their features, entered the group of students and engaged in verbal arguments, as did right-wing troll Alex Stein. At one point someone appears to deploy a large can of pepper spray at students and journalists before running past a line of police officers.
Penn State’s immediate response to the shit hitting the fan was to point the finger at student protesters. In a statement announcing the cancellation of the event, university administrators chided student counter protesters, writing that “while protest is an acceptable means of expression, it becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas. Such obstruction is a form of censorship, no matter who initiates it or for what reasons.”
In a follow up statement on Tuesday, university President Neeli Bendapudi both-sidesed the violence and accused students protesters of giving oxygen to an ideology they oppose. “Tonight, Stein and McInnes will celebrate a victory for being canceled, when in actuality, they contributed to the very violence that compromised their ability to speak,” wrote Bendapudi. “Tonight, counter-protestors also will celebrate a victory that they forced the University to cancel this event, when in actuality they have furthered the visibility of the very cause they oppose.”
Penn State previously dismissed protests against the event, billed as a comedy special titled “Stand Back & Stand By,” a reference to the shoutout former President Donald Trump gave the Proud Boys during a 2020 presidential debate. The university stated that while one of the speakers had been “identified as founder of the Proud Boys, an organization named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group,” the best response “to hateful speech is inclusive speech and the creation of spaces devoted to reflection, healing, and the celebration of those qualities we value.” The statement affirming the approval of the event made no mention of McInnes or the Proud Boys’ history of violence and incitement at protests.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Penn State indicated that “the safety of our campus and our students, faculty, staff and guests” was a “top priority,” and expressed gratitude that “no one was seriously injured. “Prior to the event, law enforcement was not aware of any credible threats of violence related to this event; however, police planned for the worst-case scenario, as evident by the large presence of law enforcement officials on site, which included officers on horseback and in tactical gear – which were deployed based on the escalated violence.”
Video taken outside of the event shows one of the police officers on horseback yelling “Fuck you!” at protesters.
“We are thankful that no one was seriously injured,” the statement concluded.