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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – In 2005, when Fox pundit Laura Ingraham attended the Aspen Institute, she was widely quoted as saying she was there as a “token conservative.” That quip caught the attention of a conservative business couple in Steamboat Springs – Jennifer Schubert-Akin and her husband Rick Akin.
Why couldn’t there be a conservative version of the progressive Aspen Institute and why couldn’t there be such an organization in Steamboat, the couple reasoned. They set to work.
Creating an organizational infrastructure, lining up local and national support, soliciting contributions, recruiting volunteers, establishing a vision, and lining up speakers and panelists is not a weekend endeavor. It took several years and a great deal of discipline and persistence – which Jennifer had in abundance as a marathon and trail endurance runner. She’s completed three Leadville Trail 100-mile races and 28 Boston Marathons.
She and Rick Akin co-founded the Steamboat Institute (SI) in 2008, and she went full-time running the organization in 2014. Its stated mission is to “promote America’s first principles and inspire active involvement in the defense of liberty.” To achieve that goal, the Akins planned annual freedom conferences in the late summer and campus liberty tours throughout the year. They also worked to create fellowships and scholarships for students and activists.
The first Freedom Conference took place in 2009 at the Steamboat Grand Hotel, headlined by columnist Michael Reagan, and also featuring tax reform activist Grover Norquist, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN), Tony Blankley, former press secretary for Newt Gingrich, and U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN). There were 125 paid attendees.
The annual conference was held in subsequent years, even during the pandemic in 2020, when the institute balked at local public health restrictions on gatherings like the Freedom Conference. That year, the conference was moved to the Park Hyatt Resort & Spa in Beaver Creek. The freedom conference has been there ever since, and will be there for its 15th conference on August 25-26, 2023.
There are bigger conservative gatherings than the Freedom Conference, in Colorado and nationally. But what’s notable is how Steamboat Institute regularly it competes above its weight class and its ability to attract notable speakers, panelists, and even attendees.
Here are a few names recognizable names who’ve been speakers at the Freedom Conference: Karl Rove, Ginnie Thomas, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Steve Moore, John Bolton, Dick and Liz Cheney, Dr. Ben Carson, Pete Coors, Laura Ingraham, Heidi Ganahl, Michael Flynn, Carly Fiorina, Charlie Kirk, Candice Owens, Steve Forbes, Ryan Zinke, Alan Dershowitz, Dr. Scott Atlas, Art Laffer, John Eastman, Jared Polis, Mike Pompeo, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and John Yoo.
And then there’s the second and third tier of speakers and panelists from the ranks of conservative media, academia, institutes, and think tanks — many of whom are semi-regulars who pitch in to moderate a panel discussion or serve as a panelist or as a speaker. There’s often someone from the Wall Street Journal, Hillsdale College, the Hoover Institute, Washington Examiner, The Federalist, Turning Point USA, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the Washington Times.
While Colorado’s right-wing radio outlets, like KNUS, have not been involved with the Freedom Conference, the Colorado Springs Gazette’s conservative tentacles reach into the event and the Steamboat Instittute’s other activities. The Gazette, Colorado Politics, and the Washington Examiner are owned by billionaire GOP donor Phil Anschutz via his company Clarity Media.
The Gazette’s editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen spoke at the Freedom Conference in 2015 and 2017. Laugesen subsequently attended the Jan. 6 insurrection and immediately commented that the culprits were “probably Antifa” (He was accompanying his wife at the riot, and he was there to observe, he claims.). Anschutz’s Colorado Politicswas listed as a sponsor of Steamboat Institute’s Campus 2018 Liberty Tour debate on “Nationalism Versus Globalism” between Nigel Farage, a Trump ally who led the charge for Brexit, and Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico. (See all sponsors on right.) Denver Gazette Editorial Page Editor Dan Njegomir spoke at an SI event last year.
Since 2008, the Steamboat Institute has grown, promoting its conference as having a scholarly tone, high-quality speakers and panelists, and an emphasis on civil discourse with a minimum or outright absence of bomb-throwing or red-meat fireworks.
But, despite the billing and the appearance of some Democrats like Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, many of the conference’s headliners are well-known flame throwers, who promote extremism to conservative audiences and beyond.
Extremist Speakers: Eastman, Thomas, Kirk, Boebert
Trump election conspiracist John Eastman, a conservative attorney, spoke at the Freedom Conference in 2020 when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado’s Benson Center for Western Conservative Thought.
At the Freedom Conference, Eastman focused on how national and state constitutions are often battered by executives. His examples were all of Democratic executives who ran roughshod over constitutional law during emergencies. Eastman cited Polis and his COVID executive orders — and President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. He praised then-President Trump for “staying in his lane” and not abusing the U.S. Constitution.
When he appeared at the Freedom Conference in August, 2020, Eastman had not yet written his notorious two-page memo on how then Vice President Mike Pence could refuse to certify the results of seven states’ elections on Jan. 6, 2021, and possibly keep Trump in power. On Jan. 6, 2021, Eastman was one of the speakers at the “Save America” rally, along with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself. Eastman’s roles and memos have been thoroughly investigated by the January 6 Committee, national news media, grand juries, and judges. One judge ruled that it was “highly likely” that Trump and Eastman had broken the law, and the J6 Committee made a criminal referral about the pair to the Department of Justice.
It’s no surprise that Eastman was featured by the Steamboat Institute at its Freedom Conference because the Benson Center’s visiting scholars, like Eastman, often stop at the Steamboat Institute as part of tours conducted in partnership with the two organizations. Links between the two also include the fact that failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, a co-founder of CU’s Free to Be Coalition, was once on the board of the Steamboat Institute, and Bruce Benson was a funder of the Steamboat Institute’s Campus Liberty Tour.
By the time he spoke at the Steamboat Institute on March 25, 2021, as part of the Liberty Tour, Eastman had established himself as an architect of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and the title of one of his sessions capitalized on his infamous involvement with Trump: “What Really Happened? An Insider’s Perspective on Representing the President and Claims of Election Fraud.”
Both YouTube and Vimeo removed the video of Eastman’s session because it contained misinformation.
In response, the Steamboat Institute stated on its website that it had been the victim of censorship.
“The Steamboat Institute recently hosted an event featuring constitutional scholar John Eastman discussing claims of election fraud in the 2020 election,” states the Steamboat Institute’s website. “YouTube and Vimeo censored the event video, which you can now watch on Rumble HERE.”
The institute directed people to read the following excerpt from the conservative Spectator.
From the Spectator:
Big Tech platforms have repeatedly censored any mention of voter fraud at all. Such was the case late last week when YouTube and Vimeo pulled a video interview with Trump lawyer John Eastman. Cockburn’s colleague and The Spectator‘s Washington editor, Amber Athey, is a fellow at the Steamboat Institute and was invited to conduct the interview with Eastman at an event in Colorado. The event was called, ‘What Really Happened? An Insider’s Perspective on Representing the President and Claims of Election Fraud.’
Amber pressed Eastman on his claims of fraud from multiple angles. She asked why the Trump campaign lost so many court cases, whether or not the Supreme Court was wrong to refuse the case brought by Texas alleging illegal changes to voting laws in the run-up to the election, if the campaign will release all of the evidence they claim to have now that they’ve exhausted most of their court challenges, and more. When Eastman suggested that the courts acted in a partisan and biased manner, Amber pointed out that some of the challenges were rejected by Trump-appointed judges. That is to say, this was hardly a free-for-all. Eastman was merely offered the opportunity to present his case while addressing the many criticisms of the Trump campaign’s claims.
Nonetheless, YouTube said that the video violated its policy on misinformation. When the Steamboat Institute attempted to post the video under a different title, YouTube removed it again and revoked Steamboat’s ability to post videos for a full week. Vimeo also removed the video, saying that they ‘do not permit content that seeks to spread false or misleading information about voting.’
On Jan. 26, the California Bar Association recommended that Eastman be disbarred. The association filed 11 disciplinary counts, including “failure to support the constitution and laws of the United States,” “seeking to mislead a court,” “moral turpitude – misrepresentation” and two counts of moral turpitude. All of the counts stemmed from Eastman’s efforts to help Trump overthrow the election and stay in power.
Ginnie Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has a long-standing relationship with the Steamboat Institute. Thomas has served on the organization’s national advisory board (2019) and was a guest speaker (2010), as a representative of Liberty Central, which is associated with the Tea Party.
Spouses of Supreme Court justices typically avoid political activism, but not Ginnie Thomas. She’s worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Heritage Foundation, and former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey and helped the incoming Trump Administration select personnel.
After the 2020 election, Thomas wrote numerous emails to Trump administration and state officials, urging them to do what they could to block Joe Biden from the presidency and keep Trump in power.
Thomas, a board member of the Council for National Policy, a conservative umbrella group, has consistently maintained the election was fraudulent, but has never offered any proof. She helped publicize the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, but left before Trump spoke, and the crowd moved toward the Capitol.
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, has been a speaker or panelist four times at the Freedom Conferences. Turning Point advocates for conservative politics and activism on high school and college campuses – a shared goal with Steamboat Institute.
Kirk is accused by a Stop the Steal organizer, of paying for 80 buses to transport Trump supporters to the rally and ultimately the assault on the Capitol. The charge is based on a Kirk Tweet that Turning Point would send 80-plus buses “full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.” Kirk deleted the Tweet after the riot, and his organization claims no involvement in the rally or the riot. Turning Point later clarified to Reuters, that it had sent seven buses with 350 students to the rally.
In his deposition before the January 6 Committee, Kirk avoided answering any questions by citing the Fifth Amendment. He only answered the question of where he lived, citing Scottsdale, AZ.
Boebert, who spoke at the Freedom Conference in 2021, embraces election conspiracy theories, having voted against the certification of the 2020 presidential election, and said that “the American people deserve secure and fair elections. Unfortunately, the 2020 election was neither of those things.”
Out of Step with Colorado
Like other conservative institutions in Colorado (e.g, here, here, and more), the Steamboat Institute, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has a record of giving a platform to extremists whose views Coloradans — and the nation — increasingly reject, culminating now with Republicans holding not a single statewide office.
And there is no indication that the institute has plans to change anytime soon by rejecting election deniers and conspiracists, inviting moderate speakers, and by focusing not on fringe conservatism but on something like how the conservative movement, in Colorado and nationally, can move on from the Trump era.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Colorado Times Recorder.