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The latest Riley Gaines controversy, explained

Was the former college swimmer ‘canceled’ by Penn State? Gaines and the university have different takes

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Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines speaks during a rally outside of the NCAA Convention in San Antonio.

Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines speaks during a rally on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, outside of the NCAA Convention in San Antonio.

Darren Abate, Associated Press

Riley Gaines, the former Kentucky swimmer who rose to prominence for speaking out against transgender women competing against biological women in college sports, says that a speech she was asked to give at Penn State University today was canceled because of her views.

In a statement, the university said that’s not true, and that Riley wasn’t able to speak indoors as planned because of what was essentially a paperwork issue.

What actually happened? Here’s what we know.

Gaines, who hosts a podcast on the multimedia sports platform OutKick, said she was invited to speak at Penn State by the Arizona-based nonprofit Turning Point USA, which was founded by Charlie Kirk and promotes conservatism among college students and young adults.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, Gaines said Monday that her speech had been canceled and referenced a video in which Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi talked about controversial speakers.

In the video, posted to the university’s website last month, Bendapudi said that students would, in the coming year, be exposed to speakers who are “controversial either because their views are not widely held or because a speaker espouses ideas that are actively hateful.”

Bendapudi went on to say, “I stand in unity with those who condemn such speakers and their rhetoric,” but that the First Amendment guarantees free speech and that the answer to troubling speech is not censorship, but more speech.

It’s unclear whether the the posting of the video on Sept. 11 had anything to do with Gaines’ planned appearance a month later.

In its statement Tuesday, Penn State said Turning Point “sought indoor space, but did not meet the deadline for submitting the required reservation documents — an expectation upheld for any recognized student organization at Penn State.”

The statement went on to say that Turning Point “shared alternative plans for an outdoor event to celebrate free speech” but did not confirm until today that Riley would attend. It said the university would work to ensure “a safe environment” for the event that was “consistent with university policies and the First Amendment.”

The Centre Daily Times, the daily newspaper in State College, Pennsylvania, reported that it had reviewed 20 pages of emails sent between Riley’s team and Penn State regarding the event. The correspondence at times mentioned “tentative confirmation” for Riley’s appearance. But, the newspaper reported, “A university spokesperson later clarified to the Centre Daily Times that Gaines’ team received confirmation of a reservation request, not a confirmation of the booking.”

Gaines, who is 23, studied health science at the University of Kentucky and planned to go into dentistry after graduation. But in 2022, after she tied for fifth place with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania and did not receive a trophy in a national competition, she began speaking up about her discomfort with transgender athletes in competition. She has since become a celebrity in conservative circles and amassed 794,000 followers on X and another 300,000 on Instagram, where she goes by her married name, Riley Barker.

She said she planned to speak at Penn State on Oct. 10 “with a soap box and megaphone” although her remarks were not immediately available. There was video posted to X, however, of protesters on the campus and young people knocking over a table.

Gaines’ podcast on OutKick is called “Gaines for Girls” and launched in July.