The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

She challenged Matt Walsh on gender-affirming care. Then the death threats started.

Kayla Richardson had her first month of college disrupted after a video of her was posted to a right-wing YouTube account
Kayla Richardson, a first-year student, had her first month of college turned upside down when this video was posted on YouTube, and a wave of death threats started. (Screenshot courtesy of Young America’s Foundation YouTube)

Kayla Richardson, ’27, posed Matt Walsh a question during his Sept. 18 campus talk: why  advocate for laws restricting gender-affirming care when they would adversely impact an estimated 5.6 million intersex individuals in the United States?

The two talked back and forth for eight minutes. Richardson had calm answers to questions Walsh asked on the definition of intersex and which state laws may adversely impact intersex individuals. Walsh said he was “skeptical” of Richardson’s explanation of a Kentucky law regulating gender-affirming care, though he said he hadn’t read it. He suggested some who identify as intersex may just have a small penis.

One hour and 20 minutes after the event, that clip was posted on YouTube by Young America’s Foundation, a sponsor of Walsh’s talk at Washington and Lee. The title read: “WATCH: Matt Walsh Debates Leftist Student on Intersex Individuals and ‘Gender-Affirming Care.’”

Richardson watched with incredulity as commenters speculated on where she’s from based on how she pronounced certain words. But in the coming days, more distressing comments appeared.

“One thing immediately springs to mind, being long-term ex British military, and that thing is a bullet!!” one comment from the user peteabrh-fairest9463 said.

That comment can still be viewed weeks after the event.

Comments on YouTube became threatening days after the video was posted. Screenshot courtesy of Young America’s Foundation on YouTube

Another comment that is no longer visible on the YAF video said something along the lines of, “If someone pulled a Jeffrey Epstein on her, I wouldn’t mind,” Richardson said.

A third commenter said, “She is in Jihadi radar…be careful,” referring to Islamic militant movements.

Searching for accountability

Richardson sprung into action when the comments became threatening. The day after the event, she scheduled a conversation with Tamara Futrell, dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement.

Later that evening, Richardson asked her Resident Advisor for help. She had a phone conversation with Dean Jason Rodocker, too.

In those conversations, Richardson asked for help on two fronts: she wanted to speak to a university lawyer to understand the terms of Walsh’s speaker contract, and she wanted help taking the YouTube video down.

Richardson said she wanted a lawyer’s insight on whether YAF could use live-streamed footage from the event any way they wanted.

“There’s a difference between saying it can be live-streamed versus, ‘You can edit and cut my portion of the talk however you want,’” she said. “I didn’t sign crap.”

Administration members never let her talk to the school lawyer, Richardson said.

Richardson also contacted YAF and YouTube for a week straight to try to pull the video down. She received no responses.

In the meantime, university officials offered help that Richardson considered lackluster.

Also on Sept. 19, Public Safety Director Craig VanClief replied to an email from Richardson, who again asked to speak to a university lawyer.

This Sept. 19 message from Public Safety Director Craig VanClief felt inadequate, Richardson said. (Courtesy of Kayla Richardson, ’27)

“As the Director of Public Safety, I cannot give you any legal advice regarding any contract you may have entered into,” VanClief’s email began.

VanClief went on to assure Richardson that an investigator would monitor the YouTube comment section.

“Should you run into persons on campus harassing you or forwarding threats, reach out to Public Safety immediately,” VanClief said.

Richardson told the Phi that she was capable of monitoring the death threats herself.

“It was like, ‘If someone shows up on campus with the intent to kill you, call this number,’” Richardson said of VanClief’s response.

Nine days later, on Sept. 28, Kelsey Goodwin, a writer for the university communications office, reached out to Richardson offering to walk her through the process of reporting comments on YouTube.

Richardson never responded. For her, it was “too little, too late.”

VanClief did not respond to two email requests from the Phi for comment.

“We take all threats to members of our community seriously and we encourage anyone who receives a threat to report it to Public Safety immediately,” Rodocker said in emailed comments to the Phi.

A thorny legal situation

Melina Bell, professor of philosophy and law, said the school’s hands were mostly tied, given that the threats were coming from a forum not associated with campus. But had she been in an administrator’s shoes, Bell said, she wouldn’t have left it up to Richardson to report the threatening comments.

“If a student came to me and told me about this… I’d be like, ‘We’re reporting it to YouTube [together],’” Bell said. “This institution has more political capital than a first-year student. I would hope they use the institutional platform to help her get that addressed.”

YouTube doesn’t allow threats or hate speech in its comments. But Bell noted that some of the threats, such as the commenter who mentioned “a bullet,” could be vague enough to avoid suspicion.

Bell said there’s a term for such attempts to silence a dissenting voice: “testimonial smothering.” The term, she said, refers to how women, gender minorities and others may limit what they say because they know they will be belittled or threatened by their audience.

“One thing that could happen is she could be so afraid for her life that she never does that again,” Bell said. “And that is, I think, the intention of it.”

Richardson said she wasn’t necessarily terrified by the anonymous internet threats. But they were a source of distress during her first month of college.

“I don’t think there is a normal response to getting death threats,” Richardson said. “I was actually frustrated. I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I’m annoyed by you.’”

Nearly two months later, Richardson said she’s just trying to move on with her busy life. And she knows university officials were really trying to help.

If figures like Walsh, who often single people out, keep coming to campus, “I think the school should consider their plan to help students,” Richardson said.

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