Who Funds YAF?
After the 2011 merger with Young America’s Foundation, the newly conjoined organization began receiving considerable donations, many from the Koch donor network. YAF received more than $124 million in gifts between 2010 and 2017, making up the majority of its operating budget. Donors included Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Forbes, Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, Tom Clancy, and others. In 2013, a $16 million bequest from Robert Ruhe enabled YAF to double its outreach programs, making it possible to send 111 speakers to 77 campuses in 2016 alone (Chapter 3). YAF also receives funding from prominent attendees of Koch’s donor summits. The DeVos family, who gave approximately $10 million for YAF to purchase their Reagan Ranch, also donated an additional $15 million between 2003 and 2012. YAF received $100,000 from hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer in 2016, and his daughter Rebekah Mercer sits on the board of the Reagan Ranch. YAF received $3 million from Koch family foundations, the Bradley Foundation, DonorsTrust, and Donors Capital Fund between 1998 and 2019.
Young Americans for Freedom is a 60-year-old student organization founded in 1960 by Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. This group grew rapidly around the effort to secure the Republican presidential nomination of segregationist Barry Goldwater and support his 1964 presidential campaign. Many of the prominent leaders of the conservative movement and the Republican Party in the 1980s cut their teeth with Young Americans for Freedom.
A separate organization, launched by conservative activists in 1969 and eventually called the Young America’s Foundation, focused on bringing conservative speakers to campus. In subsequent decades the Foundation engaged a number of programs to increase conservative ideas on college campuses and in public policy. The group had close ties to Ronald Reagan, who regularly spoke at events. In 1998 the Young America’s Foundation purchased Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo, converting it into a conference and event venue, which includes running “training seminar(s) focused on hosting conservative speakers on … campuses.” In 2001, the Young America’s Foundation merged with the National Journalism Center, cementing its commitment to training conservative journalists. In 2011, it merged with the Young Americans for Freedom to form a unified entity. The Young America’s Foundation remains the parent entity, with student chapters operating under the name Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).
YAF’s mission includes “ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.” YAF exists to train“activists, authors, and tacticians in the Conservative Movement” and “prides itself on the people that have made an impact on our young leaders and conservatism.” YAF alumni include authors, journalists, pundits, columnists, and producers within the conservative news ecosystem, including Ann Coulter; top leaders of Koch-funded political organizations; as well as elected politicians and White House staffers such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and for White House advisor Steven Miller (known to espouse white nationalist ideas and was the architect of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies).
YAF has become a major player in libertarian-funded free speech activism. YAF frequently runs conferences for college and high school students to train them in campus activism and journalism. During YAF training sessions students learn “when it is legal to record a conversation with a college administrator; how to press schools to cover some of the security costs [of a controversial speaker]; regulations on sidewalk chalking, fliers and other forms of promotion and whether they can be challenged; and when to call the foundation’s legal staff for help.” YAF also provides its campus activists with pre-packaged campaigns. Students can order a “Free Speech Box,” supposedly valued at $270 but free to high school and college students, and introduced with the following warning: “Are your free speech rights being curtailed on your campus? Of course they are! Most schools infringe on students [sic] free speech rights, especially if you want to promote conservative ideas. Well, we can help you push back at a moment’s notice.” The box includes a “Free Speech Quick Action Plan,” along with buttons, stickers, T-shirts, pocket sized copies of the Constitution, and posters featuring the slogan “I Support Free Speech, Not Political Correctness.”
In addition to training and supporting campus activists, YAF also specializes in developing a vast infrastructure to bring conservative speakers to campus, touting campus speaking tours and a large speakers bureau consisting of a hundred individuals—including Ben Shapiro—many of whom can be booked directly through the Young America’s Foundation’s website. Between 2005 and 2017, YAF spent roughly $54.3 million on its campus conference and lecture programs alone. In addition to bringing often-controversial speakers to campus, YAF’s Censorship Exposed program sues schools over supposed free speech violations, often following incidents provoked by the student chapters.
There have also been numerous connections between YAF chapters and alt-right and white supremacist groups. After Michigan State University’s YAF chapter invited the white supremacist Jared Taylor, British fascist and Holocaust-denier Nick Griffin, and others, the group became one of the only student organizations designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The chapter’s president, Kyle Bristow, later went on establish the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, providing legal support to the alt-right and filing lawsuits supporting Richard Spencer’s efforts to speak at Michigan State, the University of Cincinnati, and Ohio State. YAF was also forced to fire Michelle Malkin from their speakers bureau after she openly praised the white nationalist Nick Fuentes during a YAF speech at UCLA. Matthew Heimbach, who founded the Montgomery College chapter of YAF, went on to create the neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Workers Party. YAF chapters sponsor events such as “Catch an Illegal Immigrant,” a “Koran Desecration” competition, “Affirmative Action Bake Sales,” and a “Hate Speech is Free Speech” event. And YAF board members have held leadership positions in groups promoting white nationalism.
Stefanie Saul, “The Conservative Force Behind Speeches Roiling College Campuses,” New York Times, May 20, 2017.
Ashley Wong, “Young America’s Foundation: Who is Funding UC Berkeley’s Ben Shapiro Event?” The Daily Californian, September 14, 2017.
Peter Hatemi, “What Do You Do When Hate Knocks on Your Door?” Medium, February 10, 2021.
Alex Kotch, “Ben Shapiro ‘Owns the Libs’ … But Who Owns Him?” TYT, July 31, 2018.
**Information on this page was originally published in: Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War (with Ralph Wilson, Pluto Press, 2021)