Campus talks a grooming ground for the right
BUFFALO, N.Y. >> “Let’s give it up for the racists that are hosting this event!” someone yelled, and the crowd roared, foot-stomping in unison, then breaking into song: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” One member of the audience held up a sign, “Queers Against Islamaphobia.” Another unfurled a banner: “Muslims Welcome. Fascists Get Out.”
Close to 200 students kept up the noise for more than an hour in a University at Buffalo lecture hall May 1, mostly drowning out the evening’s featured speaker, Robert Spencer, a conservative author and blogger who espouses a dark view of Islam. The event appeared to follow a familiar script, in which a large contingent of liberals muzzles a provocative speaker invited by a small conservative student club. But the propelling force behind the event — and a number of recent speeches on college campuses — was a national conservative group that is well funded, highly organized and on a mission, in its words, to “restore sanity at your school.”
The group, the Young America’s Foundation, had paid Spencer’s $2,000 fee, trained the student leader who organized the event and provided literature for distribution. Other than the possibility of outside interference, little had been left to chance. The speeches are a part of the group’s mission of grooming future conservative leaders — Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, a White House adviser, are among its alumni — and its long list of donors has included television game show host Pat Sajak, novelist Tom Clancy, billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, and Amway billionaires Richard and Helen DeVos, who gave $10 million to endow the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., which the foundation runs as a preserve. (Their daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, is not a donor, the group says.)
Over the past two years, armed with a $16 million infusion from the estate of an orthodontist in California, Robert Ruhe, the organization has doubled its programming, including campus speeches. In 2016 that meant 111 speakers on 77 campuses. On the group’s website, it boasted of “dispatching” 31 speakers to colleges last month alone. Among them is Ann Coulter, whose canceled speech last month at the University of California led the foundation, which was covering most of her $20,000 fee, to sue the college, arguing that it had violated the First Amendment in its failure to provide a suitable time and place for the event.
The resulting clashes on university campuses, including protests and efforts to block speeches, have raised free-speech questions. And at Berkeley, even liberals who oppose Coulter’s viewpoints said her speech should have been allowed to proceed.
In the meantime, protesters have questioned whether such events are cynically intended to provoke reactions. “It’s part of a larger systematic and extremely wellfunded effort to disrupt public universities and create tension among student groups on campus,” said Alexandra Prince, a doctoral student at Buffalo who circulated a petition to block Spencer.
But Ron Robinson, who has served as Young America’s president for more than three decades, said the group’s goal is simply “to in- crease appreciation and support of conservative ideas, not to stir up leftists or Muslims.”
The foundation has more than 250 high school and college campus chapters, known as Young Americans for Freedom, which was originally a separate organization. One of that group’s founders was aristocratic publisher and television host William F. Buckley Jr., who reveled in poking fun at and holes in liberalism in higher education.
Students can attend training seminars at the group’s Reston, Va., headquarters as well as off-site conferences. The foundation teaches essentials such as when it is legal to record a conversation with a college administrator; how to press schools to cover some of the security costs; regulations on sidewalk chalking, fliers and other forms of promotion and whether they can be challenged; and when to call the foundation’s legal staff for help. “Conservative students have to learn how to negotiate through their school’s bureaucracy, which is often put in place to prevent or control student events,” Robinson said in an email.
The group also provides kits of what it calls “conservative swag,” such as a giant dorm-room poster of Ronald Reagan on horseback, instructions for staging a funeral for the death of Halloween (buy a lawn decoration coffin or make one yourself) — a swipe at university efforts to discourage offensive costumes — and posters to distribute on Sept. 11 featuring vivid depictions of the World Trade Center attacks and terrorist beheadings.
In addition to its fiery speakers and marquee names like Newt Gingrich, the organization’s roster includes many low-fuss speakers like publisher Steve Forbes and author Ben Stein. It was not associated with the divisive campus appearances recently made by writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Among the foundation’s most popular speakers is Ben Shapiro, a 33-year-old author and columnist (his column runs Wednesdays in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser), whose recent appearances were blocked by security at DePaul University, loudly protested at the University of Wisconsin and initially barred, then permitted, by California State University, Los Angeles.
In 2015, Shapiro spoke at the University of Missouri shortly after protests erupted over racist incidents there. He argued that “white privilege” was simply a way of telling white people to “shut up,” and that President Barack Obama, our first “white black president,” was not as articulate as the news media had made him seem but got “affirmative action points.”
On poverty and single mothers: “There’s not a white person anywhere that is forcing a black person to sleep with a black person, conceive a child and then not get married,” Shapiro said, adding that the statement applied to both races. A professor of plant sciences at Missouri, Craig Roberts, attended the speech and said he agreed with some parts, characterizing it as “very eloquent and energetic.”
Protests have also greeted foundation-backed speakers like David Horowitz and Katie Pavlich. Among their transgressions, in the eyes of their critics, is their comparison of Black Lives Matter to hate groups. At the University of Michigan last year, Horowitz, a longtime conservative activist and writer, called Black Lives Matter the “most vicious racist movement this country has seen since the Ku Klux Klan at its heyday.”
To increase appreciation and support of conservative ideas, not to stir up leftists or Muslims.” Ron Robinson President, Young America’s Foundation, on the group’s mission
Ron Robinson, president of the Young America’s Foundation, left, and Daniel Weldon, an intern, at the group’s headquarters in Reston, Va.