Ford Fischer, co-founder and editor-in-chief of News2Share, was targeted with a chemical irritant while documenting a protest at Pennsylvania State University in State College on Oct. 24, 2022.
Uncensored America, a recognized student organization, had arranged a “politically provocative comedy night” with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and comedian and “professional troll” Alex Stein. The Proud Boys are a far-right extremist group, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose members self-identify as Western chauvinists and are known to instigate street brawls. The show’s title, “Stand Back & Stand By,” echoed the directive then-President Donald Trump gave to members of the Proud Boys during a 2020 presidential debate.
The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity, which is not a recognized student group, organized a protest to begin at 6 p.m. in opposition to the event, according to the university newspaper, The Daily Collegian.
Fischer told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that at various points during the student-led protest Proud Boy members arrived to escalate the conflict. Stein also came out of the event venue to antagonize the protesters before ultimately returning inside, he said.
Shortly before 7 p.m., about five or six apparent right-wingers were arguing with the protesters around them, Fischer said. In footage of the incident, the men all appear to be wearing dark jackets, khakis and face coverings or balaclavas.
One of the men unholstered a can of pepper spray and began aiming it at everyone standing nearby, which Fischer said included both student protesters and members of the press. Another member of the group then grabbed the canister and sprayed it in a circular motion.
Fischer said that he was one of the last people sprayed and that he believed he was deliberately targeted.
“I’ve been maced, but I have never, ever ever felt the kind of pain and directness that that had, where it was straight into my eye,” he said. “There’s no way that it wouldn’t have been intentional: He had to have known I was press.”
Fischer said he was wearing press credentials issued by Congress and the National Press Photographers Association and was filming with a conspicuous professional camera with a phone mounted on it.
“I was completely debilitated. I was in absolute, unbearable pain for about half an hour,” Fischer said. He added that multiple students and other members of the press came to his aid, but the officers who witnessed the attack neither attempted to apprehend the individual nor asked him for a statement.
At least one other journalist, freelance photojournalist Zach Roberts, was also targeted with the chemical irritant. The Tracker has documented that incident here.
According to The Washington Post, students had petitioned the university ahead of the event to cancel it. In a statement released on Oct. 11, the administration initially said it would allow the event to take place on the basis of upholding freedom of speech. Citing escalating violence, the university ultimately canceled the event less than an hour before its scheduled start time, notifying students through the university’s alert system at 7:19 p.m., according to VICE News.
When reached for comment, the university directed the Tracker to various statements released before and after the event was canceled.
“Tonight, Stein and McInnes will celebrate a victory for being canceled, when in actuality, they contributed to the very violence that compromised their ability to speak,” Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said in a statement. “Tonight, counter-protestors also will celebrate a victory that they forced the University to cancel this event, when in actuality they have furthered the visibility of the very cause they oppose.”
A statement released by the event organizers, Uncensored America, the following day condemned the violence.