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The Pitt News

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Column | Caitlin Clark adapts to life in the WNBA
Column | Caitlin Clark adapts to life in the WNBA
By James Carter, Staff Writer • June 20, 2024
Opinion | NHL needs to bring specialty jerseys back
By Jameson Keebler, Senior Staff Columnist • June 19, 2024
Opinion | Hold your elected officials morally responsible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 18, 2024

Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point spends $25,000 to bring James O’Keefe to campus

James+OKeefe+speaking+with+attendees+at+the+2018+Student+Action+Summit+hosted+by+Turning+Point+USA+at+the+Palm+Beach+County+Convention+Center+in+West+Palm+Beach%2C+Florida.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
James O’Keefe speaking with attendees at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Liliana Orozco, president of Turning Point USA at Pitt, said the $25,000 allocated to the organization from Student Government Board will go “completely” toward paying James O’Keefe.

Money that comes from the $100 activity fee all undergraduates pay will fund a Turning Point event titled “Exposing Corruption with James O’Keefe” on Thursday, Nov. 30.

The upcoming O’Keefe event is the first Turning Point event at Pitt to be funded through SGB allocations. Orozco said the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that supports conservatives, and grants from Turning Point’s national organization funded previous events on campus. 

“Turning Point gives us grants so we can ask for as much money to cover whatever we want to do and they’ll give us a grant,” Orozco, a senior law, criminal justice and society major, said. “We just kind of have to secure the speaker first and then we ask for whatever grant.”

O’Keefe is a self-described “guerrilla journalist” and founder of Project Veritas, a right-wing media organization aimed at “exposing corruption in government, media, big tech, politics, education, and beyond through undercover video,” according to its website.

In February, Project Veritas suspended O’Keefe indefinitely after the Board of Directors said O’Keefe spent “an excessive amount of donor funds in the last three years on personal luxuries.” This “financial malfeasance” included spending “over $150,000 in Black Cars,” racking up “$60,000 in losses by putting together dance events” and committing “hundreds of other acts of personal inurement,” according to a statement from the Board of Directors.

In May, Project Veritas filed a lawsuit against O’Keefe accusing him of mistreating both workers and the company’s finances. Currently, O’Keefe is under investigation in New York, although details of the investigation have not been made public.

SGB receives about $900,000 in student activity fees each year to allocate across student groups to fund activities like competitions, conferences and events. Maddie McCann-Colvard, SGB’s allocations committee chair, said the purpose of the committee is to empower student groups.

“Our ultimate job is to spread the money that we are graciously given from students to give back to all students,” McCann-Colvard, a sophomore business major, said. “In order to do that, we want to make sure that all different types of groups are able to get enough money from us.”

A statement from SGB in September explained that, due to Supreme Court precedent, allocation funding “must be done in a fair and equitable manner.”

“Under this precedent, a student governing body at a public institution dispensing a mandatory fee, like Pitt’s Student Government Board, must operate under the principle of viewpoint neutrality,” the statement said. “This principle means we are forbidden from choosing to fund speakers based on the content of their speech — regardless of our opinions on their subject.”

McCann-Colvard said the SGB Allocations Manual decides who gets funded and who doesn’t and emphasized the importance of viewpoint neutrality in making allocations.

“It’s against our capabilities to say no to things based off of personal feelings, personal thoughts, any of that kind of stuff,” McCann-Colvard said. “Usually, things like that just don’t come into play at all in the allocations room. We just don’t think about that kind of stuff, it’s just not part of our process.”

Turning Point rescheduled the event with O’Keefe, originally set for Nov. 3, to ensure the event has “adequate support resources,” according to University spokesperson Jared Stonesifer.

Orozco said Turning Point decided to invite O’Keefe to campus after attending previous talks hosted by him. She said while she doesn’t know what O’Keefe will talk about, his appearances are “always very engaging.”

“For example, let’s say he’s exposing whatever it is. It’ll be a really cool video of him actually doing that,” Orozco said. “He breaks it down and it’s very interactive, and I know he also allows you to ask questions during it.”

TPUSA hosted events featuring Cabot Phillips, a conservative political commentator, and Riley Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer and an avid critic of transgender women competing in women’s sports last spring. Pitt’s College Republicans, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, hosted a similar event with Michael Knowles, a conservative political commentator who said “transgenderism must be eradicated” in the month before his appearance on campus.

Most recently, Turning Point hosted conservative political commentator Brandon Tatum, which was protested by Trans Action Building PGH on Oct. 26.

Students and community members heavily protested all four events, with over 12,000 individuals having signed a petition that called on Pitt to “prevent these events from happening.”

In the week after the Knowles event, Pitt announced that the 2023-24 academic year would be called the “Year of Discourse and Dialogue,” a theme aimed at encouraging respect for differing viewpoints.

“As a public university, we must and do uphold the principles of protected speech and expression,” a statement from former Provost Ann E. Cudd said. “That is a tradition and an expectation as old as the University itself — and it lies at the heart of free and open inquiry and academic discourse.”

Khaleil Laracuente, vice president of Pitt’s Turning Point chapter, said he’s “really happy” to invite O’Keefe to speak on campus.

“I’ve seen him before at numerous other Turning Point national conferences, and his part of speaking at those were always my favorite,” Laracuente, a senior law, criminal justice and society major, said. “They were always interesting, they were funny, they were interactive, and I think that he does a really good job.”

Jeremiah Cutright, president of BridgePittsburgh, said “there is a line between free speech and hate speech.” Cutright said BrigdePittsburgh holds “discussion meetings” to bring together opposing viewpoints and create a dialogue.

“It’s really important that if we’re going to bring speakers here to campus, especially these controversial speakers where often a majority of the student campus really doesn’t think that they were appropriate to bring, I would say that it’s important to be able to show both sides,” Cutright, a senior environmental science major, said. “It’s really important to just bring everyone together from differing opinions and make sure that these conversations are conducted in civil discourse.”

Will Allison, president of College Democrats at Pitt, called O’Keefe a “fraudster” and described Project Veritas’ work as “generally pretty morally low,” but said Turning Point is allowed to bring conservative speakers to campus.

“Turning Point USA has every right to invite those people, but we as students have every right to dislike them and criticize them for it because many of those speakers, especially at the end of last year, were not good,” Allison, a senior political science major, said. “James O’Keefe — not a great guy. Not somebody I’d wanna bring around my club members, but that is obviously their decision and I’ll be interested to see where that takes them.”

Henry Cohen, political director of College Democrats, said while TPUSA is allowed to host conservative guests, “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”

“It’s people’s freedom of speech to go protest,” Cohen, a sophomore political science major, said. “It’s one of the most important freedoms, and people are going to, and in my opinion, should be protesting these, because they are making sure that their voice is heard.”

Cohen added that hosting O’Keefe isn’t as dangerous as previous conservative speakers, but giving him a platform at Pitt feels “pointless.”

“I think with James O’Keefe it’s a little bit different, because what he’s mainly known for is being a liar and a grifter, and I think that the biggest damage done is really to the reputation of Pitt and of college students here,” Cohen said. “If we’re having somebody like him come and give this talk, I think that it’s just stupid, honestly.”

About the Contributor
Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer