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Young Americans for Liberty: An Interview with CEO Lauren Daugherty

“Ron Paul is so beloved because he is so principled. That is what we are focused on here. We will work with other people who share our interests, but we’re not going to sacrifice our principles to do it.”

On June 9th, Henri Mattila was joined by Lauren Daugherty, the CEO of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).  Topics discussed included Ms. Daugherty’s thoughts on YAL’s priorities and current initiatives, the organization’s work defending on-campus speech rights, and what she sees as libertarianism’s role in the cultural debates of today.

YAL is the nation’s premier youth libertarian organization, having a presence on over 500 college campuses. In addition to student activism, the organization oversees the Hazlitt Coalition, a network of like-minded state legislators.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I would like first to hear about your own background. What brought you to the Young Americans for Liberty organization?

I was a college activist myself, and I was chair of the College Republicans at my university, and then I went on to do other work at non-profits in D.C. Later, I moved to Texas and did Libertarian Party work here, and I was CEO and publisher of a business magazine. I had planned to stay in the business world; I was enjoying not being in electoral politics or anything similar. But then the position of CEO of YAL became available; I’d followed the organization basically since its founding, particularly over the past several years as they grew in influence and effectiveness, and I had a lot of respect for that.

They were making very real progress for liberty, and having worked in conservative and pro-liberty circles over the course of my career, I have a good perspective on the different organizations that are contributing to that. And there are a lot of really good ones doing great work, but most of them don’t get to see—in any rapid time frame—the fruits of their labor. Most of them are putting good things out into the world they know are important and will help influence things over time, but they don’t get to see the concrete outcomes.

YAL is different. We get to see very concrete metrics, progress, and meaningful change in very short periods of time, and I like that! Life is short. I want to make as much of an impact in the time I have on this planet as possible, so YAL’s effectiveness is what appealed most to me.

Could you give examples of the type of effectiveness you’re talking about?

We have a couple of different prongs of what we do. We have programming on college campuses, and we have work that we do with our state legislators across the country. Our college students—they do lots of different kinds of activism—but the kind that is most measurable is changing free-speech policies on campus. So a lot of college campuses have policies that inhibit free speech or prevent free speech. And our students over the last several years have been working to get many of those overturned. Today, they’ve changed 99 policies on 99 different college campuses, and that impacts 1.57 million students a year, preserving their First Amendment rights on their college campuses. So we’re very proud of that. And I know that the ability to exercise free speech at this formative time in their lives impacts how they see free speech for the rest of their lives. So we really celebrate those wins.

And then on the legislative side, we have a coalition of legislators who are state legislators across the country. Last year, we had 174 state representatives in our coalition. This year, one of our top goals is to grow that coalition to 250, so we’re in the process of doing that. Last year, one of our crowning achievements was—through that coalition of state reps—the passage of enough pro-liberty legislation that made 88 million Americans more free, so that turns into one out of four Americans that were impacted by this pro-liberty legislation last year. And that ranges greatly. Everything from protecting the Second Amendment to increasing school choice, to ending civil asset forfeiture in Maine, and a variety of other things; these are very impactful bills that make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

So it sounds like YAL also seeks goals beyond the college campus, like stopping civil asset forfeiture. So it’s not just limited to campus activism?

It’s not limited to just campus activism. We recruit students, we train them on how to be highly effective organizers for liberty, and then we give them real-world opportunities to make a difference. Sometimes that’s overturning bad policies on a college campus, and sometimes it’s overturning bad policies in state legislatures. Some of them go and work with our sister PAC, and they knock on doors to help get pro-liberty legislators elected. Some go knock on doors and make phone calls to help pass pro-liberty legislation. They’re really active in all these different parts of the process, whether it’s mobilizing on campus or mobilizing the grassroots constituents in a specific district to encourage their state rep to do the right thing.

Got it. And I’m curious, what are—in your estimation—the most animating issues on campus today, particularly among students? What is it that they are getting most excited about, or most furious about; what is driving them to activism?

One of the things we do is allow students to pick what matters most to them—and different people are animated by different things—but the two biggest, common themes among our students are that they care about the Second Amendment and they care about school choice. And so we do a lot of work on those two things, but they also care very much about things like criminal justice reform, economic freedom, and great topics such as those. So they get to pick and choose which things they go and focus on.

I was surprised you didn’t mention free speech, because more broadly speaking, in the conservative activism world, I believe the issue of protecting free speech has become a, if not the, major issue in the last five years or so.

It totally is, and we do a lot of work on that, but it just varies from campus to campus. So on a lot of the campuses we’ve already had our victory there, which is great. A lot of the case law related to free speech on campus is based on cases YAL students have been involved in. So we’ve been really working to help turn that tide, and we’ve done great work there, but part of the importance of free speech is you have to have the free speech so that you can go out and speak on these important topics, so it kind of the precursor—the most fundamental building block—on which everything else stands.

Right, so it sounds like you’ve had major success in advancing free speech causes. Have there been instances where the system struck down your efforts, and you weren’t successful in repealing free speech restrictions on campus?

We’ve been doing this so many years, and I’ve been here for 15 months, so I’m sure that there’s stuff from several years ago that I may not know every detail on. But we have a very high success rate on it, and a lot of it is due to perseverance. We have that perseverance and that willpower, and, in the end, that leads to victory.

I was wondering that because I know that organizations such as FIRE have had a lot of success in this area as well. And due to the case law that’s been built up over the years thanks to fairly rigid First Amendment protections, I would imagine that in this particular area, the legal system would be on your side.

The legal system is on our side on this one, but we still have to go and pursue that on many of these college campuses to get them to do the right thing and be compliant with the law.

Taking a step back a bit further, I’m curious about how YAL fits into the big tent of conservative politics more broadly. I understand that it traces its origins to Students for Ron Paul, which has in part represented the young libertarian caucus of the American right. But from what I can tell, there seems to be a bit of a split happening. The Republican Party is changing by moving toward a more populist direction, particularly when it comes to economics. So I’m curious: Is YAL a big tent organization in the sense that you work with your typical Trump supporters or more populist conservative organizations—on campus or otherwise—or are you strictly limiting yourself to Ron Paul-style, libertarian types?

Yeah, we’re really focused on—as you put it—Ron Paul-type of people. We’re focused on liberty rights, and that means that sometimes our members will agree with conservatives and sometimes they won’t, and that’s totally okay. So, our members are very focused on being principled—that matters to them. Ron Paul is so beloved because he is so principled. That is what we are focused on here. We will work with other people who share our interests, but we’re not going to sacrifice our principles to do it.

I think it’s interesting to watch how generations change. I recall back in 2008 or 2007, when Ron Paul was running for president, he was—in a way—the edgy candidate for a lot of young people who were libertarian-leaning. I think one of his campaign slogans was “Revolution,” which is something you don’t associate with the Right in America today. It distinctly had a youthful flavor to it. So I’m curious: Is there a lot of Ron Paul fervor among young people still today?

Oh yeah, so our big annual conference for our top students shows that the Ron Paul fervor is alive and well. He’s a keynote speaker every year; he comes on the stage, and the crowd goes wild.

I can imagine.

It’s really endearing to watch. They love him. They respect him. He’s so genuine about these principles, and they are too. So, it means a great deal to these students when they get to see him, and if they get to meet him, it’s a really big deal.

And Ron Paul—he’s obviously getting up there in age—he’s no longer in national politics to the extent he was 10-15 years ago. Are there any other scions of libertarian thought and leadership that can fill his shoes in some way, either political or just cultural figures?

Rand Paul—Ron’s son—is a great leader for liberty and inspiration for us all. We’ve seen him in the news many times over the last couple of years, taking very principled stances, and sometimes in some very difficult circumstances. I have a great deal of respect for that, and I think that’s what true leadership is: doing the right thing when it’s hard. Rand Paul does that, and he does that with such grace.

I love knowing that he’s there doing his thing. I love that Ron’s legacy is carried on through multiple different entities, like us, and through Rand as well.

Switching gears a little bit here, I noticed that you all moved your headquarters from the D.C. area—from Arlington—to Austin, Texas. And Austin, to me, seems like it’s becoming quite the happening place for people who don’t align with the left-leaning consensus—or we could say the mainstream consensus—on a lot of issues. Do you find that to be the case? How has Austin been as a headquarters so far?

It’s been really, really good. We were fortunate that we moved our headquarters before COVID. It’s one of those fortuitous timings, especially seeing how our friends, colleagues, and other organizations based out of D.C. were locked down, and to some extent still are; they’re in the office one day a week or something. That is still radically different from how things used to be before COVID, whereas here in Texas we’re at the office every day and have been for a long time.

The policies made at the state level impact so many different things; the culture at the state level impacts so many different things. We moved because we wanted a place that was more free, and also we wanted a place that was more cost-effective, so Austin was a great fit, and we plan to stay here. We have no plans to move away from Austin, and we’re seeing so much great activity with other pro-liberty folks moving here or considering moving here. And it’s because it’s a good place to be, and people vote with their feet, right?

But I know that a lot of people—who are in Texas now—are getting worried about people voting with their feet as people from Virginia, California, and New York are arriving. 

I was having a discussion with one of my colleagues just a little while ago about that, and his observation was that the Californians and New Yorkers that were moving here really do have more pro-liberty values, and that’s why they fled New York and California. Some Texans worry about it, but he and I aren’t that worried about it based on our observations. People are coming here for a reason. They’re self-selecting to be here because they want more freedom, and that’s a good thing.

I think a lot of what is animating conservative politics today boils down to culture war issues, particularly around race or identity politics. And a lot of right-leaning voters despise critical race theory and things like the Black Lives Matter movement; these seem to be really animating features for a lot of people. And they don’t necessarily fall neatly into this left-right spectrum of old, which was more divided between economic philosophies. Do you find that your movement has a strong position either way regarding these hot-button culture war issues? 

For us, a lot of it comes back to the topic of school choice. Different parents are going to want their kids taught differently, and that’s okay. There is no one-size-fits-all education; different kids need different things. We believe that those students and parents all across the country deserve to have a say-so in which school their kids go to, and so we want to decentralize education; we want students to be able to pick which school to go to.

And there are many factors that go into that when you get to choose your school: Is history taught a certain way, is sex education taught to certain ages—that’s been a hot button topic—what kind of curriculum you have on all sorts of things, how many extracurriculars there are in terms of the arts, or school safety? Imagine if parents and students all across the country could pick which school they went to based on all those different factors that matter to them. And schools would then go and compete with each other; well, we prioritize school safety in this way, or we have the best math curriculum in town, or we teach history this certain way. Then those students and families could decide what they thought was best for them. School choice, in our opinion, is the best way to help everybody get what they want for their families.

Got it. It’s a sort of laboratories of democracy approach to education, in which parents and kids should be allowed to choose for themselves without government interference or mandates.

That’s freedom!

That pretty much sums up this conversation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me today, Lauren.

It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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