Proud Boys' only 'idea' is violence. Penn State is wrong to give its leader a platform

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

The one contribution that the Proud Boys — the mostly white-boy street thugs who arrived on the scene around the same time, not coincidentally, as the political ambitions of their hero Donald Trump — and the movement's Canadian founder Gavin McInnes have made to the canon of modern intellectual thought is that society needs a bloody punch in the nose.

"I want violence," McInnes, who has clung to a veneer of respectability for also founding the magazine that became Vice, proclaimed on his talk show in the spring of 2016, as Trump was claiming the GOP presidential nomination. "I want punching in the face. I'm disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough." Those words came just before McInnes publicly announced he'd organized his followers into the Proud Boys gang.

McInnes was presumably less disappointed over the next six years as he watched his ambitions translated into blood-soaked bedlam — first in street clashes with leftists, like a 2018 brawl outside a GOP-sponsored event in Manhattan (for which two Proud Boys were sent to prison), and ultimately for the group's critical role in the Jan. 6 insurrection that aimed to keep Trump in power, a day that left five dead and scores wounded.

Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes takes part in an alt-right protest on May 25, 2017, in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/TNS)

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The government of Canada got it right, in my opinion, when it listed the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization.

But last week, the leadership of Pennsylvania's flagship state-supported university, Penn State, went in a different direction — citing free speech grounds for allowing McInnes to co-headline a campus event on Oct. 24 that's being billed as "a comedy show." The program — called "Stand Back and Stand By," which was Trump's televised message to the Proud Boys weeks ahead of Jan. 6 — is even being supported by some $7,522.43 in student-activity funds, which will mainly be an "honorarium" to McInnes and co-host Alex Stein.

"As a recognized student organization, Uncensored America has the undeniable constitutional right to sponsor this presentation on our campus," three high-ranking Penn State administrators wrote of the group backing McInnes' appearance, adding the seemingly obligatory disclaimer against the "repugnant and denigrating rhetoric" of the Proud Boys founder. In this instance, I think Penn State's leadership is getting it terribly wrong.

Liberals and conservatives can — or should, anyway — agree that free speech on campus has not only become a fraught issue in the 21st century, but that we've been struggling mightily to get it right. My own personal views on university discourse were shaped as a boomer growing up in the shadow of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech movement, in an era in which administrators sought to treat students as children, not as adults with political free expression. It was fitting that the Berkeley protests, while led by folks on the left like Mario Savio, also had support from campus conservatives.

Exhibit A: That lofty ideal is struggling today. Many young people have come to see what some call "free speech" as a cover for maintaining noxious hierarchies like racism or misogyny — with someone like a Gavin McInnes serving as Exhibit A. I've applauded the college kids who've showed up to protest the toxic views of such right-wing speakers, but yet I also feel it crosses a line when speakers are shut down altogether, or when activists steal copies of a campus newspaper.

I'm on record with columns criticizing the students — at Berkeley, of all places — who silenced the odious Ann Coulter in 2017, and the University of Missouri communications professor who bizarrely blocked journalists from covering a protest in 2015. My grossly unrealized fantasy is a new campus paradigm around speech — one that allows oxygen for activists to beat down racism and sexism while also upholding the Spirit of 1964.

At the core of this debate is a staggeringly simple notion: That colleges and universities were created to study, formulate, and debate ideas — especially controversial ones. The even greater ideal is the most noble concept that intellectual discourse — not violence — is the one true and moral way for humankind to solve its problems. Which is what makes Penn State handing a microphone to a violence advocate like McInnes — and tossing some of its tapped-out students' cash his way in the process — such a mockery of academic freedom.

Indeed, it's telling that, according to reporting by the Huffington Post's Andy Campbell — also author of the just-published history of the group, We Are Proud Boys — the Penn State organizers essentially fibbed in claiming that McIness has mostly "veered away" from recent direct ties with the Proud Boys. Instead, Campbell presents evidence that McInnes is continuing to play a leadership role, as the Proud Boys' leader at the time of Jan. 6 insurrection, Enrique Tarrio, remains sidelined as he awaits trial on sedition charges.

The lack of daylight between McInnes and the Proud Boys organization means that Penn State is platforming a fascist-style, increasingly paramilitary type group that criminal investigations are showing was deeply tied to the idea of a violent coup against the U.S. government — certainly on Jan. 6, if not today. Last week, another leader, Jeremy Bertino, pled guilty to seditious conspiracy and admitted the Proud Boys were fighting to block the peaceful transition of power to President Biden, stating in his plea that members "were willing to do whatever it would take, including using force against police and others, to achieve that objective."

What's to debate?: Given that, can Penn State platforming a Proud Boys founder and leader be justified as part of the open exchange of ideas? Not when the group has failed to espouse anything worthy of intellectual debate during these six years. That is, of course, unless you find academic worth in rank misogyny — Campbell and others have documented the hatred for women that flows from McInnes and his followers, who call themselves "Western chauvinists" — and the notion that America's moral problems can be solved with a few right hooks.

I reached out to the Philadelphia political activist Gwen Snyder, a leading researcher of right-wing, antidemocratic involvement in political activity here in the city and elsewhere. For her work in highlighting the Proud Boys' activities, group members chose to "intellectually engage" with Snyder over the years by visiting her home, badgering her neighbors, putting up Proud Boys' stickers outside her home, and finally posting her photo online with the threat that she was "done in Philly." A member of the Proud Boys — then-40-year-old Kyle Boell of Northeast Philadelphia — was arrested in 2021 and charged with harassment and making terrorist threats against Snyder.

"They made violent threats against my family, they dared each other to rape me in their national Telegram chat," Snyder told me. "All because I spoke in ways they didn't like." Not surprisingly, Snyder sees the group gaining a platform at Penn State as part of a strategy that doesn't advance free speech, but destroys it.

She said that "to offer the founder of this violent white supremacist gang a platform in the name of 'free speech' isn't just ridiculous, it's part of the broader fascist project of abusing the language of liberal democracy ('free speech,' 'tolerance') in order to ultimately make that language meaningless. It's not just hypocrisy. It's their strategy for systematically undermining these values."

Exactly. What's more, it's hard not to think that McInnes and his allies didn't choose both their location — State College, on a campus surrounded by the counties that went so heavily for Trump in the last two elections — and the timing (15 days ahead of two of the nation's most-watched midterm elections) with the idea not of winning converts through their "humor," but with the hope of fomenting even more violence. That would be an awful stain on the Penn State community.

No wonder that so far more than 1,400 signers with the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity at Penn State have demanded that the university reverse course and cancel the campus event, arguing that the school should not be "platforming fascists." I hope their effort succeeds.

The Proud Boys are not some random group. They sit at the heart of a movement to undermine American democracy — the very thing that allows open academic discourse at Penn State to exist in its first place. The only thing worse than watching this demolition take place would be writing a $7,522.43 check to the wrecking crew.

– Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.