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On April 4, 2019, far-right commenter, Michael Knowles, spoke on the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) campus. Invited by the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and Young Republicans of UMKC, Knowles gave his vicious, transphobic talk “Men Are Not Women” to a small crowd of mostly white men of various ages.

Although there were roughly 100 people in attendance at the height of the event, nearly half of the attendees walked out in the middle of the talk as part of a planned protest.

The YAF chapter is relatively new to the UMKC campus, holding meetings since fall 2017. Like that of their national progenitor, the UMKC YAF goal is to promote far-right ideas on campus with aggressive rhetoric and providing platforms to controversial far-right speakers. To promote the Knowles event, members of the UMKC YAF tabled inside the University library  with a sign that read, “Hate Speech is Free Speech.”

Students at UMKC expressed concerns that hate speech damages a healthy learning environment and ultimately hurts other students’ abilities to participate in free speech. In response, YAF activists complained to the administration.

Micheal Knowles and Transphobia

Michael Knowles is the editing manager for the Daily Wire, a far-right website founded by Ben Shapiro in 2015. He is currently on a campus tour speaking to YAF chapters across the country. Across the country, Knowles has used his tour to peddle junk transphobic pseudo-science.

He, falsely, claimed that transgendered individuals are suffering from “gender confusion” and they are a threat to society. Knowles told students that transitioning surgeries are mutilating bodies and absurdly claimed that transgendered individuals seek to convince otherwise heteronormative individuals to do the same. He also claimed transgendered people are “false victims” that use their oppression as a way to gain access into privileged spaces, such as universities. Knowles’ UMKC speech was typical of this transphobic pseudo-scientific approach.

In the midst of the peaceful walkout of protestors, an individual sprayed Knowles with lavender oil. No one was harmed and the individual was tackled by police at the event and arrested.  Shortly after the commotion, Knowles, ended the event answering a question about immigration, calling for a far more restrictive system.

The following day, the UMKC chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal wrote, “A student group brought a speaker to campus – a speaker whose professed opinions do not align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Knowles responded on Twitter, calling the chancellor a ‘disgrace’ for his response. Knowles, who is fond of calling transgender individuals “false victims,” claimed he is a victim. Several Missouri State Senators came to his support, complaining about the “rising tide of liberal college campuses” backed Knowles. Southwestern Missouri State senator David Sater (R-29th District), went as far as to call the resignation of the chancellor to resign saying, “I would like to get more explanation from the chancellor but as of right now, he can go.”

Young Americans for Freedom Gets Back to Basics

The national organization has its headquarters in Reston, Virginia, established in 1960.  After a bit of rebrand, YAF has had a resurgence in popularity since the early 2000s.  In 2011, Young Americans Federation took on YAF as a project.

Well-funded, YAF has established a national network of students by holding nation-wide conferences and inviting students to Ronald Reagan’s ranch in California. The group also hosts a summer school to teach students their organizing tactics of provoking progressive groups on campus.

If universities try to prevent these speakers from coming to campus, YAF will file a lawsuit against the university. They have filed at least five different lawsuits against separate universities. For example, at Cal State LA, students organized a peaceful demonstration outside of the venue where Ben Shapiro was giving his speech. YAF filed a lawsuit demanding that Cal State change its free speech policies. When Shapiro gave his speech at the University of Michigan, the university had to put it in a particular lecture hall due to security reasons. YAF filed a lawsuit claiming this was a violation of their first amendment rights. UC Berkeley had to cancel three different events because of the high risk that they imposed. YAF filed a lawsuit demanding a change to UC Berkeley’s security fees and free speech policy.

Progressive students are using their right to free speech to organize demonstrations causing the universities to put more thought into security. YAF uses these security stipulations as a way to file lawsuits and cry victim. The threat of these lawsuits puts pressure on the university administration to take a supportive stance on far-right voices.

In other parts of the country, YAF chapters have run into trouble. A YAF chapter at Michigan State University organized demonstrations against affirmative action. The national organization had to distance themselves from that chapter after the Michigan chapter’s action.

Laura Gibbons

Author Laura Gibbons

Laura Gibbons is an IREHR research associate.

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