activism /

PERSPECTIVE: What Really Happened At Penn State’s Protest Against Free Speech?

'These people didn’t even know what they were protesting' Alex Stein told Timcast

As an alumni of the Pennsylvania State University, I can safely say I’ve seen my fair share of crazy experiences. I’ve seen everything on that campus from the 2016 Clown Riot, to students hurling tables against the Sparks Building when Ben Shapiro was speaking. I’ve even had someone threaten to break my neck for recording a protest outside the Allen Street Gates. But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg — none of those experiences could have prepared me for the hundreds of protesters outside Uncensored America’s “Stand Back and Stand By” comedy event. 

Uncensored America, a self-proclaimed “not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting for freedom of speech,” was scheduled to host a comedy night with BlazeTV contributor Alex Stein and podcaster Gavin McInnes. 

Hours before the event was even set to open doors, police began to line up outside the Thomas Building. They even brought out horses and a BearCat. Although Uncensored America’s previous event at the university was peaceful, it seemed that the university wanted to be armed against anything. According to Penn State University Police, there were roughly seven law enforcement departments at this event. 

According to Daryle Lamont Jenkins in an Oct. 25 article with the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The police weren’t standing close enough to intervene had someone thrown a punch,” Jenkins said. 

But they were. I was standing in Stein’s face the entire time he was outside. At one point, police actually pushed Alex Stein out of reach from one protester that was running his hands over Stein. 

“To the credit of protesters, almost no one took the bait,” Jenkins told the SPLC. 

Unfortunately, this was also untrue. Fifteen-year-old Lily Frank was identified as the girl that assaulted Alex Stein while he was outside. 

While Stein and McInnes were inside the Thomas Building, protesters became aggressive outside. It is still unknown who the individual was that began pepper-spraying the crowd but they were speaking to someone in a Penn State sweatshirt. 

“The narrative here is that ‘fascists’ were also Proud Boys pepper [who] sprayed someone or bear maced someone and that’s when the General Council of the school said, ‘Alright, we can’t do this anymore. Our students are in danger,'” McInnes told Timcast. “This is all false. There was pepper spray, but it was not from a conservative. It was from them. These agent provocateurs do that so they can continue the argument that having Alex and I here makes people unsafe. I know all the Proud Boys that are here and there was no pepper-spraying from them.”  

Hundreds of protesters began to surround the building and there was no safe exit available. At one point, two volunteers inside the building decided to try to make a break for it, opened the door, and were “welcomed” by a swarm of protesters. One protester tried to throw what was deemed to be a milkshake on them. With no safe escape, police told everyone to stay put until a safe route could be made. 

Penn State student Bram Woolley was arrested due to his proximity to police horses and refusal to move upon request. According to court documents, he faces three misdemeanor charges for failure to disperse upon officer order, disorderly conduct hazardous/physical offense and defiant trespassing.

Stein, McInnes, and event organizers were escorted by law enforcement to a car and off of campus property. Volunteers and media inside the building were given a relatively safe exit but were ultimately on their own after leaving the building. 

The Penn State University Police and Public Safety released a statement regarding Uncensored America’s event, claiming that Stein and McInnes are “known for denigrating and hate-filled remarks.” Penn State University released a similar statement, declaring that “the two speakers at tonight’s student-organization-hosted event are abhorrent and do not align with the values of Penn State.” President Neeli Bendapudi also released a statement, saying, “It is precisely because of this unwavering commitment to free speech that provocative individuals target our campus to deliver speeches.”

“I think the most glaring thing I learned tonight is that the future is bleak if this is one of the top universities in the country, arguably, and this is a big makeup of their student population,” Stein told Timcast. “This is actually kind of scary because these people didn’t even know what they were protesting. They just wanted to fight and that’s a big problem with society. We’re all divided, we’re all fighting each other.”

He added:

We shouldn’t be fighting, we should be loving one another, we should be letting people speak, but because of all of this, because I got spat on, because I got hit, because people messed up my sports coat and ripped a button off of it, and Penn State limited our free speech, now I have to take legal action against Penn State because you cannot stop our constitutional right to speak freely.

The cancellation of the event was subsequently denounced by Uncensored America.

One has to beg the question: “How much was security for this event?” This question is something I posed several times to Student Affairs and the Office of General Council, although I never received a response. I called Penn State University Police and they had no idea.

Ultimately, I received a statement from Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs, who said SA recommended to Bendapudi that the event be cancelled.

“If faced with similar circumstances again, we will once more take extraordinary measures, as [we] did in this instance,” Sims told Timcast. “The appropriate balance between public safety and free speech rights is one a university must try to strike, but each case presents different particulars that will determine our actual response.”

After this response, Penn State Student Affairs has not responded to my follow-up emails asking what “extraordinary measures” may include, who makes up the “University leadership team” and how much security will cost.

Following the event, Uncensored America’s Instagram was banned and the organization’s founder, Sean Semanko, was banned from Facebook. 

Semanko issued the following statement to Timcast:

We are very disappointed that our event with Gavin McInnes and Alex Stein was cancelled due to violence. We have always encouraged everyone to be peaceful and we have always disavowed violence. We are working with the university to figure out what went wrong and how we can prevent it in the future. If you can’t go to a comedy show safely, then you are not living in a free country. Protesters said they were going to shut down our event, and they did. They cancelled comedy. They cancelled free speech.

*For corrections please email [email protected]*