“The most hated conservative college student in the state”: How a UNT student embroiled her campus in a culture war

University of North Texas senior Kelly Neidert says she started paying more attention to politics when Donald Trump was elected president. I definitely think theres a lot of positives with just saying exactly how you feel, she says. (Emil Lippe For The Texas Tribune, Emil Lippe For The Texas Tribune)

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Editor’s note: This story contains profanity.

The University of North Texas has more than 42,000 students, but few are as infamous as senior Kelly Neidert.

Since she arrived at the Denton campus in 2019, the 22-year-old marketing major has revived its Young Conservatives of Texas chapter — which had been dormant for years — and developed a reputation among students and administrators as the campus’ biggest provocateur.

She’s easily recognizable in her red Make America Great Again hat and a megaphone sometimes slung over her shoulder — she uses it to troll her liberal classmates. On Twitter, she branded herself “the most hated conservative college student in the state of Texas.”

When students held a protest in January to push for more online classes during the peak of the omicron variant, Neidert went to the top of a nearby parking garage and shouted through her megaphone for more in-person classes. On social media, she tweets statements like, “trans ‘women’ are men, actually,” and “One of my greatest accomplishments is giving Covid to someone who was vaxxed.”

On TikTok, she posted a video in which she approached a group of students holding an event for “Coming Out Day” and said she was coming out as conservative.

03/02/2022, Denton, TexasJeff Younger departs UNT campus with police protection. Protestors peacefully demonstrated outside of Curry Hall during a Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) meeting where Texas House candidate Jeff Younger attempted to speak in opposition of children in the transgender community.Credit: Matt Iaia

Republican Texas House candidate Jeff Younger left the UNT campus under police protection last month after speaking at a Young Conservatives of Texas meeting. Credit: Matt Iaia for The Texas Tribune

Last month, her reputation grew even more after she invited anti-trans political candidate Jeff Younger to campus to speak at a YCT meeting, a move that sparked a massive protest of students who drowned out Younger with expletive-laden screams — Younger responded by calling them communists and telling them to shout louder — until university police ended the event because of safety concerns.

Police hid Neidert in a janitor’s closet to avoid protesters who were roaming the halls, allegedly searching for her.

Neidert repeated the story as a guest on various right-wing media outlets throughout March. She and other YCT members routinely record students’ reactions to her group’s events on campus — which have included protests, students cursing at her and death threats on social media — then share the videos during her media appearances on Fox News, Newsmax and other outlets.

“Thank you libs for the endless amount of content you are giving me,” she posted on Twitter last fall after students protested an anti-abortion candlelight vigil that her group hosted.

In just a few years, Neidert has single-handedly elevated the happenings at UNT into the national political debate about free speech on college campuses.

To her allies on the right, she’s a crusader against the “woke” left that is censoring conservatives in American higher education. In December, she was named one of the rising stars in Texas conservative politics by the far-right, Texas-based Current Revolt site.

To her opponents on the left, she’s using YCT and social media to spew hate speech about transgender students and to harass them, all to further her own image within the conservative movement.

“She’s a grade A troll,” UNT political science major Maya Isola said. “In a way, I have to commend her, because she knows what she’s doing.”

UNT President Neal Smatresk told a group of students protesting the university’s handling of the Younger event last month that Neidert and YCT members “have taken over the dialogue [on campus],” according to a video of the conversation provided to The Texas Tribune by a student.

“I don’t know if we can ever stop the one individual who is in that group because she’s become a media sweetheart,” Smatresk added. “And I think that she’s going to keep going.”

Getting the attention of conservative media

Neidert told the Tribune that her motivation to post her experiences at UNT online is to show what it’s like to be a conservative on campus today.

Kelly Neidert prepares for a presentation before a meeting for the Young Conservatives of Texas at UNT inside the G. Brint Ryan College of Business at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune)

Kelly Neidert prepares for a presentation before a Young Conservatives of Texas meeting on the UNT campus. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

“I think that conservatives, especially older ones who haven’t been on a campus in a while, they’re shocked by it,” Neidert said. “And so the goal of my TikTok has been to show people this is happening at college, and it’s also happening in Texas.” (Her TikTok account, which at one point had 64,000 followers, has been suspended for weeks. She says the platform considered a video from the Younger protest to be “violent.”)

Since late 2020, events organized by Neidert and her group have sparked at least one confrontation per semester between UNT students and YCT members. Each time, Neidert or another member has documented the incident with photos or video, and then Neidert shares the images with conservative TV outlets — which often put them on screen as Neidert tells the host about the experience.

When YCT members planted hundreds of flags on campus for an anti-abortion memorial in the fall of 2020, students began removing them — and Neidert grabbed her phone and started recording. The video later played on an online broadcast of Real America’s Voice, a self-described alternative to mainstream networks where “traditional values continue to get trampled on.”

In that segment, Neidert said the backlash she received on social media over the event included suggestions that she should kill herself.

“Kelly, you’re a brave young lady. Continue your fight because you can be stronger than all those folks,” the host said as she wrapped up the segment. “It has to be hard to be on that campus, though.”

The following semester, Neidert appeared on Fox News after her group hid 250 Easter eggs around campus with Bible verses inside. Neidert told the host that they received backlash on social media from students who said they were going to stomp on the eggs and replace the Bible verses with condoms.

As the Fox News host introduced Neidert, a chyron that said, “The rise of cancel culture,” flashed across the screen. She asked Neidert why the students were so angry.

“This has been a pretty common theme when my group does any type of activity on campus,” Neidert said. “It’s very liberal here, and these students don’t know how to interact with those who have a different opinion.”

A few weeks before the Younger event thrust UNT into the spotlight, Neidert used her TikTok account to draw attention to the event. She posted a video online of an interaction she had with a student in the library who she said confronted her as she was printing fliers for the event that said, “Criminalize child transitions.”

In the video, the student asks Neidert, “How do you all live, honestly? … Y’all pretend to be Christian, you’re not.”

When Neidert responds, “How do we live?” he interrupts: “Fuck you. Stop this ‘I’m kind’ shit. Don’t do that. Fuck off.”

“You’re going on TikTok, and I have 64,000 followers,” she told him as he walked away.

The video has 1.2 million views on Twitter.

In March, the videos of students screaming, standing on desks and cursing during the Younger event flooded social media. Neidert joined Younger on the conservative network Newsmax a few days after the event to discuss the incident with host Rob Schmitt.

As the two of them spoke, the hashtag #CrisisofMiseducation flashed across the screen over Neidert’s video of herself exiting the building, escorted by police. Students are heard screaming, “Fuck you, Kelly!”

“Most of the students know who I am by now, so I was expecting some backlash,” she told Schmitt, adding that she was terrified when police pulled her into a closet as “antifa ran up and down the hallways.”

“When I see kids like that, I honestly just feel bad,” Schmitt said. “They’ve been completely indoctrinated by some really sick people in our society.”

Students push to get Neidert and her group expelled

Left-leaning students on campus said they’re aware Neidert is using their reactions against them on conservative media and social media.

They acknowledge that some protesters’ behavior during the Younger event — particularly those who searched for Neidert inside the building — wasn’t productive. But they said they cannot just ignore her rhetoric.

03/02/2022, Denton, TexasA group of protesters stand on the steps of Curry Hall. Protesters peacefully demonstrated on UNT's campus during a Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) meeting where Texas House candidate Jeff Younger attempted to speak in opposition of children in the transgender community.

Protesters demonstrated on UNT's campus during a Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) meeting attended by Texas state House candidate Jeff Younger, on March 2, 2022. Credit: Matt Iaia for The Texas Tribune

Protest signs line the stairs of Curry Hall on the campus of University of North Texas during the protest on March 2, 2022.

Protest signs line the stairs of Curry Hall on the campus of University of North Texas during the March 2 protest. Credit: Lillian Vest/North Texas Daily

First: Protesters gathered outside of a Young Conservatives of Texas meeting where Texas House candidate Jeff Younger spoke on March 2. Last: Protest signs lined the stairs of Curry Hall on the UNT campus. Credit: Matt Iaia and Lillian Vest/North Texas Daily

“There’s two options: Let her grow passively and slowly, pretty much unfettered, or get attention for a countering voice,” said Emily, a transgender student who said she started to organize in opposition to YCT’s actions because she felt targeted on campus. She asked to be identified only by her first name because her family doesn’t know she’s transgender.

For transgender students in particular, Emily said, Neidert’s rhetoric about their existence made the fight more personal.

Meanwhile, thousands of UNT students want Neidert gone from campus. A petition calling for Neidert’s expulsion from UNT had more than 20,200 signatures online as of Thursday, and students also have demanded in another petition and during protests that the university remove YCT from campus.

In the video of Smatresk talking to student protesters, multiple students claimed Neidert had harassed them and used hate speech against transgender students. Smatresk repeatedly told those students to file gender discrimination or civil rights complaints with the university — without a formal complaint, he said, the school could not act.

When asked whether students had submitted formal complaints, the university said in a written statement that it received informal complaints about Neidert and the campus YCT chapter via email, and a review of those complaints did not yield any policy violations. The university also said the YCT chapter has not violated any university policies.

UNT student Tara Olson, who helped organize protests calling on the university to hold YCT members accountable for their actions, said she was disappointed the school wouldn’t punish YCT or remove Neidert from campus.

“It’s almost like they’re afraid of getting backlash from the conservative media that Kelly has become a part of,” she said.

Neidert and the YCT chapter have also drawn fire from other UNT conservatives. Immediately after the Younger event, three leaders for the UNT chapter of Young Americans for Freedom issued a scathing statement on Twitter calling YCT “a radioactive force to conservatism” and accusing Neidert of stoking conflict on campus to fuel her own media career.

“If she can manufacture more outrage by provoking the campus left, she can create the narrative that the left is evil,” said the statement, which was later deleted without explanation. “In her mind, such narratives are attractive to media outlets.”

Group leaders declined to be interviewed by the Tribune.

Neidert said she’s not pursuing a media career. And in hindsight, she said, Younger’s decision to engage with the protesters, calling them communists and snowflakes, did make it seem as if her group was just trying to provoke liberal students on campus and get attention.

“I definitely think that that kind of painted the situation in a different light for people on the left,” she said. “[Younger] calling them communists and screaming at them, I didn’t really like that, honestly.”

The path to campus activism  

Neidert is calm and matter-of-fact when she reflects on the controversies that have swirled around her for the past few months. She doesn’t see herself as a political radical; she considers herself part of the broader conservative movement and repeatedly refers to her beliefs as mainstream, particularly regarding health care for transgender children.

Yet she understands how she is perceived, quipping that her online presence and the attention from the Younger event might make it difficult for her to find a job after graduation.

She was raised Baptist in Denison, 75 miles north of Dallas, and credits her family for her political leanings. She remembers watching Fox News with her grandfather before school, but she really started paying more attention to politics during her junior year of high school when Donald Trump was elected president.

She said she appreciated Trump’s willingness to state his opinions without trying to appease everyone in a way that waters down the message.

“I definitely think there’s a lot of positives with just saying exactly how you feel,” she said.

Protesters gathered outside of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business at UNT, where Young Conservatives of Texas were holding a meeting in a classroom on the ground floor.

Protesters gathered outside of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business at UNT, where Young Conservatives of Texas were holding a meeting in a classroom on the ground floor. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

When she enrolled at UNT after a year at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a small Baptist college in Belton, between Waco and Austin, Neidert said she was encouraged by her twin brother, Jake — who was involved in the YCT chapter at Baylor University — to resurrect UNT’s dormant YCT chapter. Neidert attended a weekend leadership training held by YCT’s statewide organization, which she said further fueled her interest in campus activism.

She said students from colleges across Texas learned about political campaigning, how to make attractive flyers for events and how to use social media effectively. There was an entire session about using internet memes, Neidert said.

“That’s what our generation likes. So they were kind of talking about how to make good ones, trendy ones that people might like,” she said. “A lot of it was not even political at that point. It was just marketing.”

Under her leadership, YCT has aligned itself with far-right Texas political candidates. The group had an Instagram Live event with Allen West, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party who ran to the right of Gov. Greg Abbott in the recent Republican gubernatorial primary. It also hosted a rally with Shelley Luther, who became famous for refusing to close her hair salon during the pandemic and later ran unsuccessful campaigns for both the Texas Senate and the Texas House. (Neidert’s brother served as Luther’s campaign manager in her House race.)

“We don’t have to align ourselves with every Republican,” said Neidert, who has not ruled out running for office in the future. “We can kind of pick and choose who we think is the most conservative.”

Her group also sued the university over its tuition rates. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-leaning advocacy group, recently won a lawsuit on behalf of the campus and statewide Young Conservatives of Texas groups that blocks UNT from charging out-of-state students higher tuition than undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition. UNT has appealed the ruling.

A few weeks after the Younger incident, Neidert was back on campus, wearing her MAGA hat. This time, she was waiting to meet a team for conservative commentator Steven Crowder. His team had reached out to Neidert to be its campus liaison as they recorded a debate segment called “Change My Mind” for his YouTube channel, which has 5.6 million followers.

Steven Crowder asks a student about a message on a piece of paper that he’s holding up while asking students about their thoughts on transgender issues at the Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. The piece of paper read, “Radical Trans Liberation Now!”. (Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune)

Steven Crowder asks a student about a message on a piece of paper that he’s holding up while asking students about their thoughts on transgender issues at the Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. The piece of paper read, “Radical Trans Liberation Now!”. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

The theme of Steven Crowder’s YouTube episode hangs on the edge of a table at the Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Crowder asked students about their thoughts on the topic throughout the morning and early afternoon.

The theme of Steven Crowder’s YouTube episode hangs on the edge of a table at the Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Crowder asked students about their thoughts on the topic throughout the morning and early afternoon. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

First: Conservative commentator Steven Crowder talks to students about transgender issues on the UNT campus. Last: The theme of Crowder’s YouTube episode is written on a banner. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

The topic that day was whether transgender women should participate in women’s sports.

As the film crew started setting up and students realized YCT was involved, they started to alert each other on social media that the group — and Neidert specifically — were doing something on campus.

As Neidert waited, students stared. Some took her photo. Neidert smirked, then turned and waved at them.

“They really hate when you do that,” she said.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the University of North Texas and Baylor University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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