Incorrect reporting and unclear communication have made the rescheduling of an upcoming campus lecture the subject of a debate about freedom of speech.
The “Free To Offend” lecture from Daily Wire contributor Elisha Krauss was originally scheduled to take place at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13. Then, after a few hours last Thursday, news broke that the event was seemingly canceled, and then that it was instead moved to Auditorium 124 of the student union during the original time.
The lecture was approved at the Overby auditorium following a misunderstanding from Overby Fellows. The Ole Miss chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative activism organization, is hosting the event. However, since its founding in 2007, the Overby Center has observed a policy that prohibits partisan or openly ideological student groups from using its venue.
Inaugural Overby Fellow Curtis Wilkie said that it was a misunderstanding of the organization that submitted the request that caused the oversight. President of the Ole Miss YAF chapter, Sarah Croft, has her major, public policy leadership, in her email signature. When she put in a request to book the venue, those who processed the request believed it came from the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. This error went unnoticed from the initial confirmation on Oct. 24 until Nov. 7, when Croft was informed the booking had been rescinded.
“I’m still infuriated, considering they waited two weeks after our event confirmation to notify us that this policy was in place — especially when it was their responsibility to do their research early on,” Croft said.
Wilkie said he made it clear to Croft that he hoped they would find another venue to use and that he supported their political activity on campus, but that the Overby Center cannot hold programs from “anyone with an axe to grind politically.” The same reasoning has been used in the past to deny requests from both conservative and liberal organizations, including Ole Miss Young Democrats.
“We’re not denying them the right (to free speech). We just don’t feel it’s proper for it to be held in our auditorium,” Wilkie said.
This is not just a policy set forth by Overby staff, as the Overby Center’s designation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization prohibits any partisan political activity. Wilkie told Croft, “From my many years as a political reporter, I know that (YAF) is strongly linked to the Republican Party.”
Croft denies the assertion that YAF is linked to the Republican Party and has cited YAF’s own 501(c)(3) designation as evidence to them being nonpartisan.
“Our organization has never participated in electioneering, campaigning, and we have never and will never back any candidates,” Croft said.
However, the organization’s history shows otherwise.
YAF’s spearheading of Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1962 is what launched their organization, and his candidacy, onto the national stage. This was an attempt to unify the conservative faction of the Republican Party against Goldwater’s moderate primary opponent, Nelson Rockefeller.
Ronald Reagan joined the YAF National Advisory Board that same year. Reagan would eventually spend over 40 years as YAF’s Honorary National Chairman.
“We do advocate for principles and ideas that are typically conservative. And they may, yes, align with one political party over another. But I think that people who believe in conservative ideas can come from all sides of the aisle, all sides of the political spectrum,” Croft said.
After the Ole Miss chapter was informed they would have to find another venue, YAF’s official publication, The New Guard, published an article on the issue. They reported that the University of Mississippi canceled the event; however, the Overby Center acts independently from both the School of Journalism and New Media and the university as a whole.
The report also stated that the Overby Center claims to only allow journalism-focused events in their venue. They do host political programming, but all of it is either nonpartisan or bipartisan.
For example, a recent analysis of Mississippi’s statewide elections featured two political strategists, one Republican and one Democrat. This event was also moderated by Wilkie and Charles Overby, the namesake of the center.
“We don’t promote speeches. We have conversations,” Wilkie said.
Less than two hours after The New Guard article was published, the only official response to the situation from the university came in the form of three tweets.
Provost Noel Wilkin called Croft and Krauss to apologize and said that university administrators did not support the Overby decision.
While Wilkie said he is glad that the university was able to reschedule the lecture quickly, he said he disagrees with some of the implications in the university’s response. He believed it implied that the Overby Center does not stand for freedom of speech and that they failed to consult with university administrators before making decisions for the center.
Administrators did not reach out to ask why the initial booking was cancelled before tweeting out the university’s response.
“We have a history of strong support from the Lyceum. You know, I believe nobody has ever raised any question about any program we’ve ever had or any time that we’ve said no to somebody,” Wilkie said.
The controversy has given the event a considerable amount of publicity.
“I’ve been contacted by a few individuals who said they didn’t plan on coming before, and now they are,” Croft said.
Croft was also contacted by the office of governor-elect Tate Reeves which said he was trying his best to attend.
Croft also encouraged anyone who disagrees with YAF’s positions to attend, and said they would be invited to the front of the line for a post-lecture Q&A.
“I think this couldn’t have come at a better time,” Croft said.