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First Amendment rights tested by LIU students

By Emma Robinson, Editor-In-Chief

LIU Brooklyn Student Government Association (SGA) sparked outrage among students when they posted a press release on their Instagram account denouncing the newly approved LIU Post American club on March 7, 2022. 

Many students took to change.org to sign a petition to “abolish” the American club, which is sponsored by Turning Point USA, Young America’s Foundation, Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Life of America. As of April 16, there are 854 signatures on the petition.

Post Black Student Union (BSU) Vice President and senior Amanda McCollum commented on the matter in an interview with Reyna Iwamoto of the Seawanhaka.

“The existence of the club itself, BSU has no problem with — it’s the affiliations with white supremacist organizations that we take issue with. This is a common misconception,” McCollum said. “They have a right to exist, it’s just their affiliation with racist, sexist, homophobic interest groups—that is the problem. They are funded and supported by them…” 

President of the American club and sophomore Matt Cairo defended the American club affiliations due to the termination of several employees of Turning Point USA after racism scandals were made public.

“Turning Point does supply a lot of support for our organization. They are the biggest organization that we are affiliated with, and the loudest and the proudest. But, that also makes them the most controversial,” Cairo said. “The thing about Turning Point is a misconception that the people involved with the organization are making racist statements or some sort of hate speech and … I understand where it came from,  but the thing is, anyone affiliated with Turning Point who has said something hateful has been terminated. I view that as a positive for Turning Point, if they’re terminating people who have said disrespectful stuff in public…”

As students on campus debated whether or not the club should exist at all, or if denouncing affiliations with larger organizations was necessary, many questioned how the club was approved in the first place. The original press release by the Brooklyn SGA stated that the club violates LIU’s values of maintaining diversity, equality and inclusion, and turned some of the focus on the individuals that approved of the club: LIU Post SGA.

President of Post SGA and senior Rob LaPollo explained that the process to approve a club or organization on campus is solely up to LIU Promise guidelines, and that SGA members’ personal beliefs towards a club cannot impact decisions on approving the club.

“The SGA approved the American club in early March. They met all of the requirements [to become a club] of Promise,” LaPollo said. “When [SGA] approves of new organizations, we are supposed to do so without political preference. We have a diverse group of people in SGA and they have a lot of different political backgrounds, but when we’re approving any club, especially one that deals with politics, it’s our job to be blind to [personal beliefs] and approve organizations that meet the rules of Promise. At the time of their approval, [the] American club met all of the guidelines of Promise, and therefore, [SGA] took a vote. The vote was unanimous.”

LaPollo said that he was surprised when he saw Brooklyn SGA’s Instagram press release, as he had not heard from Brooklyn SGA all year. Additionally, the process for approving clubs may be different for each LIU campus.

Immediately, I thought that we [Post SGA] should have a conversation about it with them [Brooklyn SGA], but things started to escalate pretty quickly,” he said. “[Post SGA] thought about putting out a statement, but I always believe that statements without actions being followed up are essentially useless. After [Post SGA] saw that, we were debating what the best course of action would be.”

LaPollo believes that there is a misunderstanding regarding the relationship of SGA and the American club.

“I think that students are not understanding our association with the American club. This SGA is not affiliated with the American club in any way beyond the fact that we approved them. I don’t want people to think that the SGA takes political sides, or believe that we have bias for one side or another. SGA just approves the clubs that meet the requirements of Promise. And then obviously, we monitor it afterwards and we hope that these clubs we approve make the right decision and don’t do anything to make students feel unsafe or unwelcome on campus. And if that is the case, we encourage them [the club] to reflect on how they can change that.”

Post SGA will be releasing a statement about their values on Instagram in the coming days.

On Sunday, April 3, an incoming students day at Post, many members and supporters of the BSU protested outside of the East campus gates following the LIU administration not meeting the demands of the BSU, as well as a racial slur being posted in a GroupMe chat with approximately 500 Post students, created by the SGA. These demands were listed on an Instagram post via @liupostbsu and were as follows; “the American club to denounce their affiliations to national orgs that have a history of spewing white supremacist ideology, acknowledgement from the Promise office, actionable steps taken by the Promise office to ensure that black students feel safe on campus, equality in how we are treated by university employees and a position in the Promise office that is dedicated to organizations who promote equality.”

Vice President of student affairs, Michael Berthel, wrote to students regarding the hate speech in the GroupMe chat in an email on March 28 before the protest. The chat was also deleted after the slur had been posted.

 The use of hate speech will not be tolerated and is contrary to Long Island University’s values and our commitment to fostering a community of respect and inclusiveness,” Berthel said. “Every member of our community has the right to feel respected and be equally valued.”

Berthel says that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) practice of more speech, not less, is a guiding principle for how administration is corresponding with the BSU regarding the issues the club is raising.

“As an institution of higher learning, the University recognizes the First Amendment as the cornerstone of our democracy, even when we may disagree with what is being said,” he said. “Our position is consistent with the ACLU which has written, “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech. How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible.”

This statement opens up the conversation further regarding freedom of speech at LIU, and indicates that administration will not require the American club to remove their affiliations. Berthel and McCollum both confirmed that there was a meeting regarding BSU’s request between administration, McCollum and the President of BSU, Alexis Pieters. 

“And [the] administration said there is nothing they can do [to remove the affiliations with the American club] because of free speech,” McCollum said in an interview with Seawanhaka. “As someone who studies the law, free speech is protected by governmental sanction … There are certain things that can’t be said … Constitutional rights are protected from government intervention — free speech doesn’t necessarily exist in this context which is something they don’t understand.”

McCollum told Seawanhaka that there was no productive conversation during that meeting regarding the American club. 

Turning Point USA chapters have been banned or denied recognition from numerous high schools and colleges across the country, including Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Florida, Lynn University,  Drake University, University of Scranton and Northwestern University. However, there are currently over 1,300 Turning Point chapters in both public and private schools in America.

Ultimately, if LIU administration is not requiring the American club to disaffiliate with organizations that many students feel are controversial and discriminatory, it is up to the American club members to determine how they are going to exercise their free speech, and if that free speech is appropriate given LIU’s values and club guidelines. 

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