In a closed-media event at the University School of Law Jan. 26, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 2024 presidential candidate and class of 1982 Law alumnus, spoke to students in what many saw as an attempt to gain the support of young voters. The candidate, known for his controversial statements and history of environmental activism and litigation, spoke about his vaccine skepticism and conspiracies surrounding President Joe Biden and the war in Ukraine.
The event, planned, organized and moderated by third-year Law student Alexander Szarka, was hosted by the Student Bar Association after multiple other organizations, including Student Affairs and the Federalist Society, allegedly declined to do so.
Students who wished to attend the event had to RSVP and show their University ID at the door. Kennedy’s campaign team informed local media, including the Daily Progress, of the event but the press was later informed that the School of Law did not want them to attend.
University spokesperson Bethanie Glover said in a statement to The Cavalier Daily that federal restrictions prevent the University from hosting an event that provides a media platform to candidates for political office.
Szarka insisted that the event was not a campaign event and was merely an opportunity for students to hear from a prominent alumnus. He said that the event focused most heavily on giving career and life advice to law students, especially pertaining to Kennedy’s experience in environmental law. According to Szarka, the School of Law chose to deny media access with no explanation.
Glover did not respond to further requests for comment after this claim from Szarka.
“It’s hard to have something considered a campaign event when you go through such rigorous restrictions,” Szarka said. “Whether there was media there or not didn’t make this any more or less of a campaign event than it was. And it wasn’t.”
Third-year Law student Tristan Deering, who attended the event, said that although the SBA made it clear that Kennedy’s visit would not be a campaign event, it “absolutely” seemed like one to him.
“[Kennedy] was very much making a direct appeal of why he was better than the other candidates, Biden and Trump,” Deering said.
Kennedy announced he would challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination for president last April. When polls showed he had a narrow path to victory, he announced he would instead run as an independent, breaking with the rest of his historically Democratic family whose members have held a wide variety of prominent government positions.
After developing a strong record as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy’s presidential campaign has been characterized by his conspiratorial beliefs. During the event, Kennedy talked about his mistrust in vaccines, saying that his record of suing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes him the right candidate for the presidency.
Kennedy also claimed that Biden wants the war in Ukraine to continue because of the Democratic Party’s supposed ties to BlackRock, an asset management firm. In a previous campaign speech, he alleged that the money the U.S. is sending to Ukraine is actually going to defense contractors owned by BlackRock, and that once the war is over, BlackRock will profit from rebuilding Ukraine.
Some Law students hoped they would see a more grounded version of Kennedy than what they see online. Deering said he mainly went for “entertainment value,” having heard about Kennedy’s conspiracy theories.
“I was hoping he might calm down and somewhat moderate [his] views, but he didn't,” Deering said.
Second-year Law student Cameron Mayhew, who worked with Szarka on the event, insisted that Kennedy did not dive into conspiracy theories, and instead that his perspective rested on surface-level facts about BlackRock, leaving the audience to interpret the situation for themselves.
The Daily Progress spoke with several students, and while many echoed Deering’s statements and affirmed their intent to vote for Biden, some noted that they were impressed by Kennedy’s charisma and how much more articulate and genuine he seemed in person than on social media.
Mayhew said that students overall appreciated the consistency of Kennedy’s anti-establishment views throughout the event. According to Mayhew, the overwhelming feedback from the event indicated that students were open-minded and pleasantly surprised about Kennedy’s remarks, until the final question which sparked mixed reactions from students.
While questions for Kennedy were not prepared ahead of the event, Szarka asked students to submit topics of interest in advance, which he reviewed and compiled into one list of broader topics for Kennedy and attendees. However, one student chose to ask a question that strayed from their pre-assigned topic, instead asking Kennedy about the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Deering said Kennedy responded to this question with another conspiracy theory, this time surrounding the death of his father. Kennedy’s father Robert F. Kennedy — also a Law alumnus — was killed by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, allegedly over his support for Israel. In a 2021 opinion piece published by The San Francisco Chronicle, however, Kennedy wrote that his father’s real killer was a security guard named Eugene Thane Cesar who had a history of racism and hatred towards the Kennedy family. At the January event, Kennedy reaffirmed his belief that Sirhan was not the only person involved in his father’s assassination.
Despite disagreeing with some of Kennedy’s views, Deering said he was hopeful to hear Kennedy discuss his opinions on free speech, a subject he feels strongly about. However, Deering was disappointed by the way the event was moderated, claiming that Szarka did not push Kennedy on his responses and that the questions were largely easy to answer.
“All the questions were pre-approved [and] there was no opportunity for counter speech or questioning him on his crazy views,” Deering said. “[Szarka] was just an objectively bad moderator. He did not know how to control [the conversation] and so he just left [Kennedy] to go on these very long tangents about these wild topics.”
After hearing from Kennedy about his beliefs, Deering says he still plans to vote for Biden.
“Some of his views are quite dangerous and harmful,” Deering said. “I absolutely already made up my mind that I'll be voting for Biden.”
Kennedy’s conspiracy theories have drawn criticism from members of his family. Four of Kennedy’s siblings — including former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) and former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-Mass.) — released a statement in October denouncing their brother and calling his campaign “dangerous to our country.”
Though Kennedy has a campaign office in Charlottesville, he has not yet qualified for the Virginia presidential ballot and it is unclear if he will do so.