Fightin' Words

How Boise State tackles unpopular speech and radicalism



UC Berkeley has been in a virtual siege since the election of President Donald Trump, with warring factions of protesters swelling to include "antifa" and anarchist groups, Patriot Movement organizations and neo-Nazis. The clashes can be measured in pints of blood, concussions, broken bones and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, as the Bay Area university has struggled to maintain order. In the eye of the storm have been campus speaking engagements featuring right-wing lightning rods Ann Coulter and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

More than 600 miles away, in Boise, the climate is much calmer—but that doesn't mean Boise State University hasn't felt the conflict between free speech and unpopular speech.

"I think it's comparing apples and oranges," said Boise State University Dean of Students Chris Wuthrich, when asked if what happened at Berkeley could happen at Boise State.

That said, in February, the Boise State Nationalists posted flyers on campus in an attempt to recruit students concerned about, among other things, "degeneracy," which Boise State Professor of History Leslie Madsen-Brooks said "crossed a bright line into Nazi ideology."

Almost immediately, members of the Boise State community began posting handbills mocking the nationalists' flyers, which featured an image of Captain America. Many took issue with the group's use of Captain America, which they said turned the fascist-fighting superhero on his head, while others satirized the BSN cause by redrawing the Marvel character as a puffy, pot-bellied baby.

The next day, the group decried an "amazingly incorrect link to hatred and Nazi ideology by educators and the local media" and promised a gathering of students "disenfranchised by modern political correctness."

That first meeting took place Feb. 23 at the Albertsons Library. It was sparsely attended—four students showed up—but BSN leader Henry Brown took advantage of media interest to clarify the points made in his flyer.

"Degeneracy," he said, was an allusion to sexual promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse. One attendee, who wouldn't give his name, said a degenerate is "someone who acts less than human."

Boise State also took note of the meeting. Three officials from the Division of Student Affairs arrived at the study room early to invite Brown to register BSN as student group. When unpopular speech prompts campus pushback, "the guiding light is something like the First Amendment," said Boise State Associate Vice President Greg Hahn. Student Affairs' invitation to official recognition was part of the university's strategy of "facilitating those conversations around those issues," said Hahn.

"We're blessed with students who understand the need to be civil in their debate, nonviolent in their approach," Wuthrich said.

Recognition is a carrot-and-stick approach to student groups that offers fundraising opportunities, campus resources and more in exchange for adhering to the law and school policy. The university's offer to BSN has so far gone unanswered.

With the exception of posting unsanctioned flyers, none of BSN's activities violated the law or Boise State rules. Students participating in a recent anti-extremism campaign, however, included the Boise State community reaching across the internet to combat a particular radical ideology beyond the confines of campus and—according to its adherents—beyond the law: the sovereign citizen movement.

As part of the EdVenture Partners Challenging Extremism competition, Boise State students produced videos of classmates explaining why they reject online recruitment by sovereign citizens—a loose knit community the Federal Bureau of Investigation has called "anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States."

Sovereign citizens live by an unorthodox reading of the U.S. Constitution that often puts them at odds with local governments, police and federal agencies.

Videos produced for the Challenging Extremism competition showed students expressing concerns over safety, freedom of speech and access to government services that would be impossible under the sovereign citizen interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Members of the sovereign citizens movement have been linked to violence and intimidation campaigns of public officials. The largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history was the Oklahoma City bombing, which was perpetrated April 19, 1995 by Timothy McVeigh—with help from sovereign citizen Terry Nichols.

Students unveiled the videos ahead of an April 12 panel discussion on sovereign citizens, featuring former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, Reps. John Gannon (D-Boise) and Patrick McDonald (R-Boise), and Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, who attested to the threat posed by the sovereign citizen movement. Donahue said his encounters with the movement included attempts at coercion and intimidation.

"That doesn't sit well with this sheriff," he said. "I work for all the people, not just a few."

Olson spoke to the power of student voices in fighting recruitment for radicalism where it often lives: online. Her comments could have just as easily described the handbills satirizing the Boise State Nationalists.

"The goal of [this] project is to occupy the same space as the recruiters—this is where the battleground is," she said.


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