Students Hold Free Speech Events, Get Denounced as White Supremacists

Administrators cancelled their event after a drawing of Pepe the Frog was found on their "free speech ball."


Linfield College
DerRichter/Wikimedia Commons

Faculty and students at Linfield College have compared the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) to terrorists and denounced them as white supremacists. Why? Because the libertarian student group attempted to host a series of free speech events at the small liberal arts college in McMinnville, Oregon.

The story begins in April, when YAL members set up a table on campus to promote both their newly formed group and a series of "speak freely" events they were sponsoring. Keifer Smith, vice president of the chapter, brought along an inflatable "free speech ball" and invited students to write whatever they wanted on it.

"The majority of the things written on there were uplifting things, not political, not inflammatory at all," Smith reports: comments like "you're awesome" and "have a nice day." But one person drew Pepe—a cartoon frog that some alt-right trolls have adopted as a symbol—and so the YAL chapter quickly became the focal point of campus outrage.

"Immediately we were deemed alt-right," says Smith. They were even called white supremacists.

The Linfield Advisory Committee on Diversity responded to the Pepe doodle by inviting the chapter to a free speech forum. According to Smith, this was supposed to be an hour-long discussion of the general idea of open expression—but quickly morphed into a four-hour denunciation of him and his group for their supposed intolerance.

Next the school declared that it would be cancelling an upcoming event in the "speak freely" series—a talk on ethics and free speech by the University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. The libertarian group was told the paperwork for the event had been turned in a day late; the school also cited tweets from Peterson promoting what was supposed to be a private event for Linfield students and faculty.

Meanwhile, faculty lashed out at the YAL chapter in the campus paper, The Linfield Review.

"The agenda of groups like Alt-Right and campus clubs that are either supported by the Alt-right or providing a platform for the Alt-Right is clear," wrote Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, a professor of English and the co-coordinator of the school's gender studies program. "They want to challenge college campuses for their numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives that provide a legitimate space for ideas and knowledge base that have been historically marginalized and excluded."

At the free speech forum, Dutt-Ballerstadt had accused Smith and his group of being funded by "alt-right dark money."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Linfield's dean of faculty, Dawn Nowacki. Nowacki admitted that she didn't know any times anyone in the YAL chapter had expressed anything racist or misogynist, but she insisted they still posed a threat. "These efforts are a lot more subtle," she wrote. "Just as becoming a terrorist is a gradual, step by step process, people do not become part of the alt right overnight. These events represent a kind of soft recruitment into more extremist ideas."

Undeterred, the chapter moved the Peterson lecture to an off-campus venue. "We were really only planning on having maybe 100 people, maybe 200 people," Smith recalls. Instead over 400 folks turned up, and a YouTube version has so far gotten nearly 90,000 views.

Smith says he hopes to keep providing a forum for students to express otherwise maligned and unpopular viewpoints. As for the professors and students who have denounced him, Smith says their rhetoric is part of an open campus discourse too: "That's the price you pay for free speech."