The Conservative Force Behind Speeches Roiling College Campuses

The speeches are a part of the group’s mission of grooming future conservative leaders — Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, a White House adviser, are among its alumni — and its long list of donors has included the television game show host Pat Sajak, the novelist Tom Clancy, the billionaire brothers David H. and Charles G. Koch, and the Amway billionaires Richard and Helen Devos, who gave $10 million to endow the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., which the foundation runs as a preserve. (Their daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, is not a donor, the group says.)

Over the past two years, armed with a $16 million infusion from the estate of an orthodontist in California, Robert Ruhe, the organization has doubled its programming, including campus speeches. In 2016 that meant 111 speakers on 77 campuses. On the group’s website, it boasted of “dispatching” 31 speakers to colleges last month alone.

In that time, the speakers have gotten edgier, more in-your-face and sometimes even meanspirited. Among them is Ann Coulter, whose canceled speech last month at the University of California, Berkeley, led the foundation, which was covering most of her $20,000 fee, to sue the college, arguing that it had violated the First Amendment in its failure to provide a suitable time and place for the event.

The resulting clashes on university campuses, including protests and efforts to block speeches, have raised free speech questions. And at Berkeley, even liberals who oppose Ms. Coulter’s viewpoints said her speech should have been allowed to proceed.

In the meantime, protesters have questioned whether such events are cynically intended to provoke reactions.

“It’s part of a larger systematic and extremely well-funded effort to disrupt public universities and create tension among student groups on…

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