Penn State’s Handling Of Controversial Event Was A Dangerous Failure

Earlier this month, student group “Uncensored America” announced it was bringing the founder of the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes, along with Alex Stein to Penn State for a “comedy show.” The event, titled “Stand Back and Stand By,” was slated for 8 p.m. on Monday, October 24, in the Thomas Building.

Leading up to the event, Penn State explained that public universities are obligated under the First Amendment to protect expressive rights, even if offensive to others. Furthermore, the university said Uncensored America “has the undeniable constitutional right to sponsor this presentation on our campus.”

The decision to allow the founder of the Proud Boys, which is an organization named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, to come to campus caused outrage. The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity sent out a mass email on October 20 encouraging students to take part in a protest opposing McInnes’ event, while also discouraging participation in “Together We Are,” which it called a university “cover-up event.”

The university issued a follow-up statement in response to the mass email, saying the email included “inaccurate, false, and potentially harmful information.” Penn State then also discouraged community members from attending the protest.

All this then brought us to Monday, October 24. What started off as a normal fall day turned into absolute chaos well before dusk. Penn State’s handling of the controversial event, from start to finish, was nothing short of an embarrassment. For a university that claims to prioritize student safety, its handling of the event showed anything but that.

Protestors set up outside the Thomas Building at roughly 5:30 p.m., and Stein arrived around an hour later. He was met with a smattering of boos and “Asshole!” chants. Tensions quickly rose, as police and demonstrators were pepper sprayed, Stein was spat on, and pushing and shoving ensued.

In the video linked above, police stand by as demonstrators were maced. The man who maced the crowd ran away and didn’t appear to be pursued by police. Here’s another angle:

In a statement released Tuesday, Penn State Police said one arrest was made for “disorderly conduct and defiant trespass” and charges will be filed “in the near future.” It’s currently unclear why the person was arrested.

“University Police is continuing to investigate activities associated with the Uncensored America event last evening and surrounding events, including those involving use of pepper spray by individuals in the crowd outside of the auditorium,” the statement reads. “Charges will be sought for any individual identified as violating law. Likewise, any student identified as possibly violating the law or the Penn State Code of Conduct will be subject to the University’s disciplinary system.”

A line of police horses built a barrier between protestors and the Thomas Building as tensions continued to rise.

Then, less than an hour before the scheduled start, Penn State canceled the event, which was funded by the University Park Allocation Committee ($7,522), citing “the threat of escalating violence” as the reason. This was after people were maced, and physical altercations had already been well underway. The violence had already escalated, and it was a last-ditch effort by the university to save face. If it was that concerned about campus safety, the event wouldn’t have taken place to begin with.

Following the cancellation, “We Are Not Afraid Of Proud Boys” chants broke out, and protestors began marching down Pollock Road.

It’s hard to fathom how it took people getting maced and physical altercations for Penn State to realize how bad of an idea this was. I understand the First Amendment and free speech argument. Truly, I do. However, the university ended up canceling the event anyway. Whether it canceled the event two weeks ago or yesterday, the financial implications are likely similar. So, if the university is worried about a lawsuit, waiting until the day of to cancel the event doesn’t get rid of that.

Lawyer and former Onward State managing editor Kevin Horne echoed a similar sentiment, stating Penn State is still subject to a lawsuit if that course of action is taken. In an appearance on “The Benny Show,” Stein said he plans to sue the university.

Should money even be a factor here, though? We’re talking about the safety of students and community members. If Penn State wants to take the “we didn’t think it would turn violent” route, then the university is either extremely uninformed or just in denial — neither of which are valid excuses.

I just want to know what changed. The event originally wasn’t canceled due to freedom of speech, but then it ended up being canceled anyway. Was Penn State leadership waiting for the inevitable violence to take place before canceling it? If so, that’s no way to run a university. People could’ve been seriously hurt.

The Proud Boys’ history is no secret. The group is designated as a terrorist organization in Canada and New Zealand. The group played a pivotal role in the January 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol, as five of its members, including leader Henry Enrique Tarrio, were indicted by a federal grand jury for seditious conspiracy for their role in the coup attempt. One of its additional members pleaded guilty to assaulting police officers during the insurrection.

McInnes stepped down as the Proud Boys’ leader in 2018, but to say he’s unaffiliated from the group is naive. In September, McInnes met with the Proud Boys in Las Vegas to discuss an internal “Civil War” with the group.

Additionally, McInnes is on the record saying the final degree of the Proud Boys’ initiation process is to “get arrested or in a serious, violent fight for the cause.” What if someone carried out that final degree Monday night? The evidence for expected danger and violence was right in front of Penn State’s face, and it blew it. There’s no other way around it.

At roughly 8:30 p.m. on Monday, police told Onward State that the speakers, Stein and McInnes, were “gone.” In a video posted to Stein’s Twitter account, McInnes and Stein are seen driving away from campus with a police escort.

The protests began to disperse between 8:45 and 9 p.m., and things appeared to remain relatively calm for the remainder of the night. Still, there was an uneasy feeling from many students about what had just happened. And, while tensions seemed to have calmed down, it was still very much unclear whether there were any Proud Boys or Proud Boy supporters still roaming around campus or downtown.

Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi released a statement early Tuesday morning addressing the cancellation of the event. Despite the violence and chaos that took place on her campus, Bendapudi stood by the decision to allow McInnes and Stein to come to campus. Then, later in her statement, she blamed counter-protestors for giving the speakers a platform.

“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,” Bendapudi wrote.

Let’s call the statement what it is. Bendapudi is deflecting blame away from the university in what was a bizarre message to send. No accountability was taken. Would admitting your mistake make everything better? Not quite. However, it sure is better than continuing to spew nonsense and failing to acknowledge your own mistake. Doubling down on a decision that put your student body at risk shows a complete failure of leadership.

As a matter of fact, “in actuality,” Penn State furthered the visibility of Stein and McInnes’ platforms. If Penn State was so dead set on allowing Stein and McInnes to come to campus, the least it could’ve done is set up better security measures. Why was Stein allowed to walk freely through the protests to antagonize demonstrators? Why wasn’t he escorted directly to the Thomas Building? Letting Stein roam freely among protestors was a disaster waiting to happen. Whoever was in charge of making sure this was handled safely failed at their job.

So yes, Stein and McInnes likely did get what they wanted Monday night. They got attention. You simply can’t blame protestors for that, though. For a university and a president that wants to “foster [a] sense of belonging for every student, employee, and alumni,” the course of action taken doesn’t promote that. The hateful rhetoric echoed by those two speakers doesn’t create a sense of belonging.

Thanks to the inaction of Bendapudi and Co., students were at risk Monday night. Thankfully, it appears no one was seriously injured, but that doesn’t mean we should forget this. Penn State messed up, whether it wants to admit it or not. It’s on the university to own up to its mistake and make things right.

Since the publication of this post, the university responded to our request for comment about what changed that caused Penn State to change course and cancel the event. Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers referred to the 2018 Richard Spencer situation.

“Penn State told Richard Spencer that he was not welcome at that time because the planned event was in close proximity to the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, just 10 days prior,” Powers said. “Spencer later canceled his speaking tour in March 2018, following violent protests at other campuses.  Per University Policy AD02A: ‘The University will also reject or cancel any event if it determines that safety and security concerns require this action. If, for example, the University determines based on advice of law enforcement that there are true threats or a risk of imminent violence or other criminal conduct that would endanger people or property and are likely to occur, the University will reject or cancel the event.'”

“Last night, at the time the speaking event was cancelled, based on the escalating situation, law enforcement believed that these circumstances existed,” she continued. “These circumstances did not exist prior to the actual event.” 

Both Penn State Police and State Police haven’t responded to a request for comment.

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

After a four-year career with Onward State, Gabe is now a college graduate and off to the real world. He shockingly served as the blog’s managing editor during the 2022-23 school year and covered football for much of his Onward State tenure, including trips to the Outback Bowl and Rose Bowl. For any professional inquiries, please email Gabe at [email protected]. You can still see his bad sports takes on Twitter at @gabeangieri.

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