Conservative Campus Groups Felt Threatened Over Free Speech Conference

Conservative Campus Groups Felt Threatened Over Free Speech Conference
Conservative Campus Groups Felt Threatened Over Free Speech Conference

Members of some conservative groups at Siena College in upstate New York said they received politically aggressive emails they considered threatening ahead of a free speech conference that is running right now on campus.

Several students told LifeZette that despite their requests for an alert to the campus community — beginning back on February 2, when they say they received the first such email — school administration and campus public safety officials had turned a deaf ear to their worries.

The activities of conservative groups and their members on campus definitely have made headlines recently.

Three weeks ago, reports surfaced about an email exchange between philosophy professor Jennifer McErlean; Antonio Bianchi, a student and the president of Siena’s Turning Point USA chapter; and a Siena alumnus. In the email, McErlean referred to conservative students who made her feel “miserable” enough to quit her role with the school’s civil discourse committee. The professor also said she found conservative groups “evil.

Earlier this week, Siena College reappeared in the media. Student Zack Butler is reportedly facing disciplinary action, even expulsion, for his March 22 distribution of 600 flyers that showed screenshots of the McErlean/Bianchi email exchange.

A few hours after the flyers appeared, Maryellen Gilroy, vice president for student life, emailed the campus community that a public safety investigation on the “flyering” was underway. She included a link to an anonymous tip line. Butler and his peers are questioning that response — and also questioning what they believe is an underreaction to aggressive emails against conservative clubs and organizations. Some students said they felt frustrated and even frightened.

After students shared screenshots, LifeZette reached out to Siena’s associate director of communications, Lisa Witkowski, who responded by email: “You gave me specific dates, but not the language for content that was considered threatening. The college has no record of anything being filed with Public Safety about threatening emails.” LifeZette shared additional information, to which Witkowski replied, “It is my understanding that the administration has provided students with ample opportunity to file a formal complaint … Regarding the Let Freedom Ring conference, the college has issued a detailed set of guidelines for attendees addressing safety and behavior.” Only registered students could attend, for example.

Related: Student Might Be Expelled for Flyers Around Campus and More

The school’s Turning Point USA and Young Americans for Liberty chapters said they received the emails from an anonymous email address: [email protected] The emails, signed “Nib Stryker,” contained information available only to people on Siena’s network (they require log-in credentials). People familiar with firearms and ammunition will recognize “NIB” as “new in box.” Handguns are fired either by hammer or “striker”; the Armsel Striker is a shotgun used by Israeli police.

The email to both groups contained similar content.

The writer of the emails claimed to be a communist (possibly satirically), and made references to Russia and an ongoing “cold war.” Remarks about conservatives being “white nationalists” were included, as were references to “Holocaust deniers.” Mostly, the emails seemed to cast aspersions on conservatives.

For safety purposes, at least one conservative campus club moved its meeting space to a location patrolled by Public Safety.

Local police are aware of the emails, a student told LifeZette, and were taking them into account as they and Siena’s Public Safety officers prepared for the Sunday conference.

Siena students were nonetheless excited to hold the conference. The scheduled speakers on Sunday include Roger Stone, James O’Keefe, Austin Petersen, Nico Perrino, Christian Ragosta, and Kassy Dillon.

Bianchi said the school would enforce a zero tolerance policy on any outside guests. He told LifeZette he was looking forward to a great event for the 200 Let Freedom Ring registrants, though he wished his parents could attend, too.

Butler expressed similar sentiments. “I am very excited for the conference. I know the students who put it together worked extremely hard on hosting an event for conservative students. It will be nice to have conservative views expressed by speakers on campus for a change,” he said. “I believe it is also an excellent opportunity to open up debate between students on campus and have one’s own views challenged by another, something I believe is a crucial part of the college experience.”

Related: Look How Many College Kids Can’t Speak Freely on Campus

Nicole Commisso, of the school’s Young Americans for Liberty group, was guardedly optimistic ahead of the Sunday event. She told LifeZette she remained concerned some students seemed to discount the genuine fear conservatives feel on campus. She was also concerned the school may be silencing professors on the matter in an effort to minimize publicity.

“I am extremely excited to finally have conservative speakers on campus, to show what free speech actually is and how important it is to understand free speech on college campuses,” the college junior told LifeZette.

Michael Bove, president of Siena’s Republicans Club, shared positive feelings about the future for conservatives on Siena’s campus.

“I am extremely excited to finally have conservative speakers on campus.”

“A lot of conservative students are starting to speak up and because they know that there are many other conservatives on campus, students are less afraid to speak their mind and share their opinions,” Bove said. “I would say there is still some way to go, in terms of dealing with the administration and making sure that conservatives aren’t being unfairly treated, but this is definitely a good start.”

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Siena College [1], [2], CC BY 2.0, by Siena College)

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