A debate over First Amendment rights and the alleged suppression of conservative voices on Drake University’s campus has caught national attention in the past week after student senate denied of a conservative group as a registered student organization.
The Oct. 31 decision is the second time Turning Point USA has been denied RSO status in recent years. Conservative campus groups claim that this is emblematic of a larger issue: Drake silencing conservative voices.
Co-president of College Republicans, John Altendorf, said that Drake has a history of being unwelcoming to right-leaning views.
“Drake promises a college environment and a college experience that upholds freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble,” Altendorf said. “When things like this happen, it shows that they only agree with a certain viewpoint and they only mean that these freedoms are available to certain students if they agree with a certain viewpoint and that was what shown by shutting down Turning Point.”
TPUSA, according to their website “has embarked on a mission to build the most organized, active, and powerful conservative grassroots activist network on high school and college campuses across the country.”
However, the group has a history of often being associated with white nationalism and fascism.
Katie Moon, social media chair for TPUSA, addressed the issue involving the Drake chapter of TPUSA and its association with the national group. Moon said that the national organization functions differently than the chapter of the organization.
“They function differently,” Moon said. “We know what Drake’s campus is like, nationals doesn’t know what Drake’s campus is like, we do. We wouldn’t do anything that we know wouldn’t go well on campus and giving us registered student organization status doesn’t automatically then mean we are all going to turn into white-supremists and fascists.”
Moon echoed the sentiment that the denial of TPUSA is another example of Drake being hostile to conservative viewpoints.
“I feel like it really shows that conservatives don’t have a voice here,” Moon said. “…we should not have to fear speaking up in class and worried about our reputation being horrible just because we think something different. It always seemed like Drake is all about equity and inclusion, unless you’re a conservative. Then you’re wrong.”
The official vote to deny Turning Point occurred in an executive session. The senate motioned to move to a private meeting after alleged interference from another group on campus. An executive session means that the reasoning behind the vote wasn’t published and neither was the senators votes.
The fact that the final decision was made in private is a great upset for many on campus and there has been a call for more transparency from senators.
“One of the most problematic aspects of this decision was that it was done in private, behind closed doors,” Altendorf said. “We don’t know what discussion was held and what was said and none of the senators have a voting record on this. That’s extremely problematic. When conservative students want to vote for their senators, the people who are supposed to represent them on campus in the next election, how are they supposed to have a bar to measure whether or not these students are going to represent them?”
Moon said Turning Point felt like they were unable to fully address concerns and defend themselves because the reasoning behind the decision was not public.
“I want to know how they voted,” Moon said. “Definitely not to make them feel horrible or for people to attack them, that’s not why we want to know by any means. We want to know if they said yes or no and what their reasons were. Above all, we weren’t allowed to be there while they were discussing so we couldn’t defend ourselves.”
Nick Johnston, student body president, said the decision was made for a number of reasons and that he cannot speak for individual senators’ decisions but that the interference and disrespect from the opposition was a factor.
“People who opposed Turning Point and were there to protest, started hissing at their peers,” Johnston said. “I can tell you I’ve been on student senate for four years and I’ve never seen such disrespectful conduct in my time on student senate.”
Another reason Johnston said for moving to executive session was that while the senators voting have a job as representatives, they are also undergraduate students.
“It was clear to us that there could be national media coverage on this either way it went,” Johnston said. “I feel very strongly that we are elected representatives, we have an obligation to be transparent and to communicate to our constituents what our beliefs are. But we can’t forget that we are undergraduate students that meet once a week to hand out funding, give updates on our projects and approve organizations. I would never ask a member of our senate to be the individual target of media or persons that disagreed with their decision over organizational approval.”
After the decision to move to executive session, the senate as well as representatives from Turning Point moved to another area on campus to complete the presentation.
There, Turning Point was given a chance to answer questions senators had and finish their proposal. However, they were not present for the final deliberation and vote. The ability to reapply for RSO status is available for the group and Johnston said senate is open for them to reapply.
“Although we the senate are not talking about what we discussed in executive session, we all know what that conversation was,” Johnston said. “I trust Senator Klein, our organizational affairs senator, will be working closely with those students to help them craft tips on how they can get approved in the future.”
The group protesting, Drake Comrades, is now suspended while they are under investigation for their conduct.
Conservative groups on campus do not think the group should be removed and that the marketplace for both ideologies to exist.
“If there are students on this campus who align with the values and principles Drake Comrades stands for, then they should have a place on this campus,” Altendorf said. “I think there’s room for both groups on this campus and both groups are needed on this campus in order to have the diversity in thought and opinion that Drake says they believe in.”
Moon said that TPUSA’s commitment to the First Amendment means that even if they appealed the senate’s decision and Comrades came and protested them once again, they would still welcome the group.
“I think they do have a place on campus,” Moon said. “Turning Point is all about the First Amendment, we think everyone deserves a voice, we think all speech is free speech, there are no free speech zones. So I may not agree with what they have to say, I don’t agree with their ideology, I don’t agree with a lot of things but I will fight for their right to say it.”
To some, the behavior exhibited by Drake Comrades was unacceptable and did not follow the principles of civility that Drake aligns itself with.
“I will signal to you and publicly, that I did contact Dean Parker, we had a conversation and I expressed my disappointment with the organization and the way they conducted themselves during our meeting,” Johnston said. “He shared a lot of those concerns. I certainly call on all organizations to uphold campus regulations and the principles we as Drake students hold ourselves to, which I think was not done at our meeting by that organization.”
From the resulting media coverage, the marketplace of ideas and open debate has become a larger question on campus.
“When a campus is run well, it allows a diversity of perspectives to be heard on campus on both sides in order to challenge the perspective and views of all students,” Altendorf said. “By shutting down the conservative side of the conversation it really does a disservice to all students on campus.”
Johnston also said he stands by the idea of free speech, but that he believes there is a line, a line that was crossed but not by TPUSA the night on the senate meeting.
“I’ve always supported a marketplace of ideas and I continue to do so, I see no issue with that,” Johnston said. “The only line I would draw is when organizations act in ways that are inconsistent with our policies. With me, it’s when they act that way. I think we saw this past week, an organization demonstrate what is over the line, and I am not referring to TPUSA. That sort of conduct is representing what is over the line, but past that, so long as students are willing to engage thoughtfully and respectfully and in good faith, I totally support the marketplace of ideas of this campus.”
The Times-Delphic reached out for a comment from the Drake Comrades but the Drake Comrades declined to comment on the incident until the investigation is complete.
For all involved, this is just the beginning. Turning Point said they will be appealing to the senate and reapplying, College Republicans are trying to offer more conservative speakers at their events and Drake Comrades are under suspension while they wait for the results of the investigation. The larger conservation of free and robust debate remains an important topic on campus and also something student senate in particular hopes to continue discussing.
“I’m not giving up on civil dialogue,” Johnston said. “I am not giving up on building bridges with people that disagree. I am not giving up on trying to understand each other. I say to anyone who disagrees with the senate’s decision or wants to learn more, let’s get coffee. Let’s discuss. I’m ready to engage and I think in time, other people will be too.”