Cam­pus talks a groom­ing ground for the right

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Stephanie Saul

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.


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