Senate denial of conservative group ignites backlash
Drake University Student Senate has received backlash after denying the group Turning Point USA (TPUSA) recognition as an official student organization on Drake’s campus.
The group came to Senate’s regular weekly meeting on April 21, asking to establish TPUSA as an organization at Drake in order to allow the group the full organizational privileges on campus, such as reserving rooms and having a table at the activities fair.
“I know lots of college campuses stress diversity and equality, and those are huge things you stress, unless it comes to conservative values,” said Christina Herrin, the Iowa field director of TPUSA, at the meeting. “ … There is a need for us here, and we just really want to give the opportunity to students to have their voice heard and talk about issues that they’re concerned with.”
Herrin, based in Iowa City, is a full-time employee of TPUSA.
The discussion and debate surrounding TPUSA lasted 40 minutes. Senate then voted 15-3, with one abstention, to deny the group. Senate said they denied the organization because of privacy concerns, stances on social media and receiving conflicting information from the group.
“This one (motion) was a little different in the fact that we engaged in a continual dialogue with representatives from Turning Point USA,” Student Body President Kevin Maisto said in an interview on April 26. “One individual in the back wanted to respond to different things and we allowed her each time to respond and advocate on behalf of her organization to clarify information… The resounding vote … is fairly indicative of how the conversation went and how the Student Senate views the purpose and the place, or lack thereof, of this organization on campus.”
Maisto is a non-voting member of Senate, except in cases of a tie.
According to TPUSA’s website, its mission is to educate “students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government. Through non-partisan debate, dialogue, and discussion, Turning Point USA believes that every young person can be enlightened to true free market values.”
At the meeting, Sen. Olivia O’Hea took issue with the organization calling itself non-partisan.
But Sen. Jon Lueth clarified at the meeting what non-partisan meant in this case.
“The non-partisan claim can stand because they’re not working with any particular party,” Lueth said. “While they obviously align with a very particular ideology, that is not partisanship, so that is how they maintain their non-partisan status.”
Herrin also clarified that it is against TPUSA’s rules to be affiliated with a political party.
“Regardless of our political ideologies we might stem from, we are not affiliated with any political party or candidate, and if that were so, our national organization would actually take us off their list,” Herrin said at the meeting.
O’Hea and Sen. Kevin Kane also expressed concern over allegations in 2014 that TPUSA had obtained a membership list of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), another libertarian advocacy group, without YAL’s permission.
O’Hea and Kane said that they were concerned with the privacy and safety of students’ information.
“I fully agree that there should be political advocacy from both ends of the spectrum,” Kane said during the meeting. “… However you fall on the political spectrum, we have seen already on this campus, organizations that sort of said that they were doing one thing with personal information and then did another …. This is more of a privacy concern to me than a political ideology concern.”
Herrin responded by reassuring Senators that this would not happen again, with the possible ramification of this being the loss of her own job with TPUSA.
“We actually are not allowed to give our information to anyone at all,” Herrin said at the Senate meeting. “I know the issue you’re talking about is with YAL at the University of Iowa, actually … I’m huge into YAL and huge into Turning Point at Iowa. I think this happened like a year, maybe two years ago … There’s no soliciting of information. We can’t give your information to anyone else. There’s no other organization we are allowed to give it to.”
Even though Herrin clarified the allegation against TPUSA, Kane said in a later interview that he still felt uncomfortable approving the organization.
“That piece of information (YAL allegation) turns this from, ‘This is a group of liberals who don’t agree with conservative ideals’ to ‘This is an issue of student privacy’ and we don’t want a group on campus that has been accused of stealing student information,” Kane said. “That to me is the disconnect.”
When asked for further comment on April 26, Herrin deferred all questions to the TPUSA website and declined a telephone interview unless questions were submitted in advance.
However, Herrin did say in an email comment that she felt that Senate did not give her opportunity to speak on behalf of the allegations.
Matt Lamb, the heartland regional director for TPUSA, who was not present at the meeting, did comment on behalf of TPUSA in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“The allegation is from two or three years ago. It is really just a non-issue, in our opinion. Nothing ever happened from it,” Lamb said. “I really think Student Senate bringing it up—it is really a non-issue – just personally they were looking for a reason to deny our chapter there and so they just went digging around for anything that they could throw at us.”
The next reason Senate gave behind its denial was “conflicting information,” Maisto said in a later interview, regarding TPUSA’s position on addressing social issues. Herrin said the group strictly advocates for fiscal responsibility and financially conservative positions, avoiding social issues entirely.
“I know we didn’t mention, but we don’t touch on social issues at all, so we’re not going to talk about moral issues about abortion, legalizing weed, gay rights, we’re not going to try and argue with people on their moral issues,” Herrin said in the meeting. “We’re going to talk about the fact that we’re 23 trillion dollars in debt and all these issues.”
However, Sen. Linley Sanders said TPUSA has weighed in on one social issue on its national Facebook page.
“On their Facebook page, there is a meme and it has a picture of a rape whistle that says ‘big government solution to rape’ and right below it there is a woman with a gun and it says ‘conservative woman’s solution to rape’ and in the corner it says Turning Point USA,” Sanders said. “And honestly when we’re talking about climate and we’re talking about not addressing social issues, those are social issues. And those are things that impact our climate on Drake’s campus and college campuses as a whole. So, for that reason, not because it’s a conservative group, is why I have a problem with this organization and I do not support it.”
Lamb however did not feel that this is what the organization meant by that meme.
“Our national organization supports the Second Amendment. It is a constitutional issue,” Lamb said. “It is really an issue about the free market, because it plays into the idea of private property and limited government and taking responsibility and things like that. I think that they were just looking for anything that they can throw at us and they were like ‘Let’s see if we can get people offended by that.’”
Senate looked at the national organization before approving the Drake chapter of TPUSA.
“The difficult thing is that when it is an organization that is looking to be approved, tied with a national organization, we inherently have to look at how the national organization acts, to judge how they would be on our campus,” Maisto said.
Although a majority of Senators shared concerns regarding TPUSA establishing at Drake, some Senators, including Vice President of Student Life Zach Blevins, felt the value of allowing an ideological minority voice on Drake’s campus to be heard equally outweighed the other concerns aired.
“Putting aside my own personal political beliefs, I would support this motion as well,” Blevins said during the meeting. He continued later in the meeting to say that he felt that conservative voices may not currently have a platform to express their views.
“There was literally discussion today (in a class) about how students who are perhaps on the more conservative side or what not, don’t feel encouraged to express their beliefs and their opinions because they feel that there is this overall and overarching bias on campus that they can’t, they will say something and be immediately shut down without having an opportunity to express what their opinion is,” Blevins said. “So, I think that we need to be supporting organizations that do want to encourage this dialogue across campus.”
The advisor for Drake’s chapter of TPUSA, politics professor Rachel Paine Caufield, said Wednesday that she is the advisor for organizations on campus that represent both major political parties.
Agreeing with a group’s message or ideology is “not a prerequisite for me,” Caufield said. “Any and all political groups should have the opportunity to come together.”
Matt Wilkens, one of the TPUSA student representatives, said at the meeting that allowing the organization would be a way to encourage diversified dialogue.
“When she (Herrin) says we ‘aggressively pursue’ this, we’re not pursuing a conservative agenda; we aggressively pursue a conversation,” Wilkens said. “We have had people come up to us and not agree with our views, and several of them have been faculty members and staff. They’ve actually thanked us for the conversation because they believe it’s an important issue. And we are by no means trying to indoctrinate anyone on the principles that are conservative, we are simply trying to have a conversation, because we believe that sometimes the things we stand for are suppressed on a college campus.”
When contacted by the Times-Delphic, Wilkens said he had no comments he wished to make.
The other student representative present, sophomore Amy Samuel, declined to comment to the Times-Delphic as well.
During the debate, Maisto reminded Senators to remember the First Amendment, while also asking to keep in mind the implications on other students or groups.
“I think it’s always important to remember that while certain groups and things may not be marginalizing individuals, certain policies could be,” Maisto said in the meeting. “And while free speech is important, you should also recognize some of the implications of that speech on groups of people, but also recognizing that free speech is a right that is important to everyone and all ideologies. Keep those views in mind while we’re moving forward on this motion.”
After denying the motion, Senate and specific Senators have received backlash on social media from Drake students and TPUSA representatives. A TPUSA-affiliated site, Hypeline, posted an article on April 25 in response to the meeting, that referenced the minutes from the meeting, which are available publicly online. Lamb wrote the article, which has been shared over a thousand times via Hypeline.
Lamb said he compiled his information by talking with Herrin, Wilkens and Samuel and then confirmed it with the Senate minutes.
The article quoted Senators making statements that two Times-Delphic reporters who attended the meeting did not hear.
Senate minutes only summarized the debate and did not include direct quotes.
A Times-Delphic audio recording of the meeting did not capture the quotes the article attributed to Maisto and Kane. A quote attributed in the Hypeline article to Sanders is unintelligible in the recording because multiple people were speaking at once.
Lamb felt that the Senators brought their own beliefs to the Senate table.
“I think the Student Senators came in and they were ideologically driven and are big supporters of views we don’t necessarily agree with. Again, that is fine,” Lamb said. “The goal of our club is to talk to students about issues, and we hope that even if students disagree with us, that they would be open to a debate.”
There are hundreds of high school and college chapters of TPUSA across the country, including one at each of Iowa’s public universities and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA.
Student government at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska also recently denied TPUSA.
The decision to deny the organization at Drake sparked outrage among TPUSA supporters and Drake students, many of whom shared the Hypeline article and sent hundreds of tweets directly and indirectly to the Senators who voted against the organization. TPUSA’s official Twitter account and founder and executive director Charlie Kirk’s Twitter account criticized O’Hea and Maisto along with Student Senate and the University.
After Lamb’s article received considerable social media attention, Senate issued a statement regarding the meeting and how the process worked to deny this organization.
“It is within the discretion of the Student Senate to approve or deny prospective student organizations on campus,” Maisto said in the statement.
Meghan Blancas, a faculty advisor to Senate and the director of student leadership programs, cited Drake’s policies regarding political activity on campus in an email statement. “Drake is committed to an open and productive exchange of ideas, allowing free and informed discussion of political affairs,” Blancas said. “As the advisor in the room, I witnessed a respectful exchange amongst all groups that reflected that statement.”
Despite the backlash and article, Senators stand by their decision.
“I stand by everything that was said at the meeting and decided at the meeting,” Sanders said. “I think that it is unfortunate to see that some of this has been misconstrued by people who weren’t in attendance of the meeting … I’m glad that this was all directed at us as student representatives and not at students who disagree with them (TPUSA) on campus. I am fine with us taking the heat for that, if that is how they want to represent their views and their organization. I would rather they come after us than our students if they establish (as an organization).”
The April 21 meeting was the last of the year. TPUSA would be able to return to Senate next academic year to reapply for organizational status at Drake.