Drama erupts at CPAC after panel told to drop speaker who attacked Florida shooting survivor

Facebook, YouTube fail to blunt conspiracy theories
Facebook, YouTube fail to blunt conspiracy theories

The Conservative Political Action Conference hasn't even started and a snafu is once again stealing the limelight ahead of the annual event.

News of the last-minute chaos emerged on Wednesday morning when Pamela Geller, the radical anti-Muslim activist who was organizing a discussion on the "suppression of conservative views on social media," canceled her event over being asked by the American Principles Project, the organization sponsoring the panel, to remove Jim Hoft as a speaker after he spread conspiracy theories about a student survivor of last week's Florida shooting.

"APP made Hoft's presence a make-or-break issue," Geller said in an email to CNN. "I was not prepared to drop a speaker from a free speech panel because leftists have chosen him as their next target."

It's the third consecutive year CPAC has been marred by controversy before even starting. Last year, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scrapped as a keynote speaker when it was revealed he made comments that appeared to endorse pederasty (Yiannopoulos later said he used "imprecise language" and does not advocate illegal behavior). And the year before, then-candidate Donald Trump generated headlines when he abruptly decided to pull out of his planned speech.

CPAC is the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the US, dating back to 1974. Thousands of individuals, many whom are students, flock to the event each year to listen to luminaries on the right speak and exchange ideas. This year's schedule includes speeches by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, in addition to appearances by media personalities like Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.

Hoft, the founder of the right-wing fringe website The Gateway Pundit, courted controversy earlier this week after his website attacked David Hogg, a student survivor of the Florida school shooting who has been calling for a national conversation on gun violence in television appearances in the wake of the February 14 massacre.

Lucian Wintrich, The Gateway Pundit's White House correspondent, claimed in one story on Hoft's far-right site that he had "exposed" Hogg, suggesting the student was running cover for the FBI because of his father's previous employment as an agent at the bureau. The story declared, without real evidence, that Hogg "appears to have been coached on anti-Trump lines" and characterized him as "a pawn" of the media and "well-trained political operatives" for "anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation."

Despite the public's outrage over the report, which was published on Monday, Wintrich defended his article in a statement to The Wrap, saying he had no reservations about it: "Native Americans are the only ones with reservations," he told the website.

This is not the first time Hoft has drawn controversy. The Gateway Pundit is infamous for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories over the years.

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principle's Project, told CNN he had contacted Geller on Tuesday night to tell her that, for such reasons, including Hoft would distract from the panel's intent.

"Going after these kids is just completely unacceptable, and from my point of view, it was going to take over the media coverage of the panel," Schilling said.

Geller responded by scrapping the entire panel.

Schilling said he resents how Geller handled the matter.

"The thing that's upsetting to me is that I did this directly with her. I was honest with her, I was direct with her," Schilling said. "She decides to go to Breitbart on the radio this morning without even giving me a heads up."

"It's just crazy and it's why conservatives lose," he added. "It's because they're all about personalities."

The now-canceled social media censorship panel had been set to include a number of right-wing agitators including James O'Keefe, the guerrilla filmmaker. Also set to speak was Dan Gainor, vice president of the Media Research Center, an organization which says it exposes supposed liberal bias in media.

The event stirred buzz when it was announced earlier this week. One contingent of conservatives denounced the presence of figures like Hoft and Geller at CPAC, while others said they looked forward to the event. The far-right website Breitbart, for instance, which was previously headed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, played it up as the lead story on the front homepage of its website. "Def a must-attend," tweeted senior Breitbart editor Amanda House.

Hoft told CNN that he was "very disappointed" in the decision to bar him from the event. Despite the APP being responsible for the decision to prohibit him from the panel, Hoft cast blame on CPAC, accusing the organization of taking its "marching orders from Chelsea Clinton," who had called out Hoft on Twitter for spreading conspiracy theories about Hogg.

"I hope fellow conservatives see the importance in discussing this issue without fear of consequence," he said.

A spokesperson for CPAC did not respond to a request for comment. The annual conference begins on Thursday.