Students walk out of YAF, Michael Knowles event

Michael Knowles, a conservative commentator and author, spoke at USC Thursday during an event hosted by USC’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. 
(Natalie Bettendorf | Daily Trojan)

Nearly 30 students silently walked out during an event hosted by USC’s Young Americans for Freedom Thursday that featured conservative speaker Michael Knowles, calling his rhetoric hateful, sexist and transphobic. Organizations that walked out of the event “Men Are Not Women and Other Uncomfortable Truths” are calling on the University to revoke YAF’s status as a Recognized Student Organization. 

More than 100 students came to watch Knowles, who opened the event with a joke concerning the validity of climate change. Shortly after, students from Trojan Advocates for Political Progress, Queer and Ally Students Assembly and other student organizations that were scattered among the crowd stood up and walked out, leaving behind a printed statement on their chairs that called for YAF’s RSO status to be revoked.  

The students then organized on the steps outside Doheny Memorial Library to ensure students knew their organizations provided safe spaces for students. Some members of the organizations also went to dinner afterward to discuss the event and help students decompress. Students said Knowles’ transphobic views and YAF’s sponsorship of speakers that use hateful rhetoric prompted them to leave. 

Knowles was set to begin his speaking tour in April at the University of Missouri-Kansas City at an event hosted by the campus’ YAF chapter. About 20 minutes into Knowles’ speech, a student protester disrupted the event when he threw a bleach-like substance onto Knowles, UMKC’s University News reported. The student was arrested and tazed by police. At USC, approximately eight officers from DPS and LAPD were present at the event. 

TAPP members left a printed statement on their chairs calling for USC to revoke YAF’s status as an RSO. TAPP claimed the University is unable to promote inclusivity if it also supports speakers like Knowles.

“YAF is an RSO, which grants them the privilege to reserve spaces and security for events like this,” the statement read. “However, hosting speakers who verbally attack women, as well as the LGBTQ+, disabled, Latinx, Muslim and Black communities blatantly violates one of the main responsibilities of an RSO.”

According to the USC Campus Activities website, RSOs cannot base membership, elections or other decisions and matters “on the basis of race, creed or religion, sex, age, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, medical condition and national origin.”

YAF Chairman Maxwell Brandon denied claims that YAF had discriminatory practices because he said any student could join the organization. He said students should be open to hearing all viewpoints and that a speaker’s controversial opinion does not make them invalid. 

“By [TAPP’s] logic, I could claim that College Democrats is discriminatory because I don’t agree with what they espouse, so since I’m not comfortable going to their meetings … they’re discriminating against me,” Brandon said.

During his address, Knowles said feminism and being transgender are mutually exclusive.

“The transgender definition of womanhood is often a caricature,” Knowles said. “Often it involves heavy makeup, sexualized clothing, big eyes, big eyelashes — I am thinking about ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ That is one view of womanhood, and I am willing to wage that is not the view of womanhood that most feminists hold.”

Despite Knowles’ claims, there is no “transgender definition of womanhood.” According to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender is an umbrella term “for people whose gender identity and/or expression are different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.”

TAPP Vice President of External Affairs Jessica O’Connor helped plan the walkout with members of the executive board and said she felt they should protest his transphobic rhetoric. TAPP also reached out to members of QuASA, Latinx Student Assembly, Black Student Assembly and the Native American Student Union to join them. 

“We wanted to walk out because we wanted to demonstrate that there are allies out here of the trans community,” O’Connor said. “There are students here who are paying attention, who are going to stand in solidarity.”

In its statement, TAPP said USC should not fund events like Knowles’ visit and the security that accompanied it. Brandon said YAF covered all funding for the event, including security costs, which he estimated totaled to about $7,000. When conservative commentator and Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro spoke on campus last October, Undergraduate Student Government covered $4,100 in security fees. 

Executive Director of QuASA Steven Vargas said inviting speakers like Knowles to campus fuels hate speech and could lead to harmful actions against the queer community and other minority groups. 

“Free speech is not discriminatory,” Vargas said. “The reason that free speech is there is so that people who are oppressed in our community are able to speak up against those who oppress us, and the kind of free speech that they are expressing is putting out and hammering down on what has been our history of discrimination, of oppressing the minority groups.”

Presley Baker, a member of YAF, said she enjoyed the opportunity to hear a conservative viewpoint on campus. She said TAPP and other organizations had the right to walk out, and she said she was glad everything was handled in a respectful manner. 

“I know we’re always trying to bring in more conservative speakers … so it’s great to have the difference of perspective,” said Baker, a sophomore majoring in journalism.

Prior to his visit, Knowles made headlines for his comments on Fox News Monday night about 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg after her speech to the United Nations on the risks posed by climate change.

“The climate hysteria movement is not about science,” Knowles said on Fox. “If it were about science, it would be led by scientists, rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.”

Thunberg is one of the organizers of the #FridaysForFuture movement, a climate strike that involves thousands of students across the world march outside of local city halls and government buildings every Friday. She has since won the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” and has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fox apologized for Knowles’ comments on Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, in a statement to several media outlets. O’Connor said TAPP decided to organize the walkout before Knowles’ appearance on Fox.

“We didn’t want to give him any of our time. He’s not worth any of our time,” O’Connor said. “Nothing he has to say is worth our time. He illustrated that pretty well when he got banned from Fox News. He’s not even worth Fox News’ time.”

In a previous version of this article, Presley Baker was misgendered. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.