Higher Education

Ray Carter | November 5, 2020

Conservative OU student group faces free-speech obstacles

Ray Carter

Students at the University of Oklahoma, as well as members of the public, will have the opportunity to hear political commentator Ann Coulter speak the evening of Nov. 5. But those who sponsored Coulter’s speech found the event—a routine appearance by a speaker on a college campus—was treated as anything but routine.

Instead, sponsors say they faced numerous objections that have not been raised when other, comparable figures have appeared on campus.

“When you’re a conservative group on campus, sometimes you’ve just got to jump through a couple hoops, which is sad but that’s our reality,” said Maegan Watson, OU chapter vice president of Turning Point USA.

Turning Point USA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” The organization has chapters on more than 2,000 campuses, including the University of Oklahoma.

The group’s activities include bringing prominent speakers to campus. But when Turning Point sought to sponsor Coulter, Watson said the OU administration initially insisted that Turning Point pay for six security officers even though just two security officers are expected at most events. The school would have then charged the student group $2,000 to $3,000 for the added cost of security.

Watson said Turning Point has abided by all policies in the student handbook. While that document provides little guidance specifying how many security guards are required beyond a minimum of two, Watson said Turning Point referenced “other events in the past” to determine the appropriate level of security, including when the College Democrats of Oklahoma brought Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker to OU in April.

On Oct. 19, the OU Democrats issued a release declaring their members were “deeply alarmed about the decision to bring Ann Coulter to OU” and called for cancellation of the event “to protect the well-being of the OU community.” The release declared, “In the midst of a global pandemic, hosting a large, in-person, indoor event is irresponsible.”

The OU administration initially insisted that Turning Point pay for six security officers even though just two security officers are expected at most events.

Watson said OU Democrats have held events “in the same exact room” and at indoor facilities off-campus where Democratic students were “following all the same guidelines we will be—masks, socially distanced, hand sanitizer, everything—but they’re calling for us to cancel ours even though they are hosting events that are exactly the same.”

In particular, Watson said Turning Point has faced strong resistance from the OU Student Government Association, which “really does not like us.”

“Most of our obstacles do come from the student government association, because it is run by mostly people who are very liberal,” Watson said. “They don’t want to hear other ideas, which is so sad. That’s what college is all about. You need to branch out and you need to hear those different ideas, even if you hate them.”

The student government association controls room reservations, various forms of permitting, and which student groups are officially recognized on campus to receive funding.

“They are trying to deny us funding,” Watson said. “Some of their members are trying to get us kicked off campus as an organization, even though we have been following all the guidelines they set for us.”

She said the student government association has even required Turning Point to reserve outdoor spaces “while other groups do not have to go through the strictly enforced reservation process to reserve a spot on the south oval or anywhere outside on campus.”

That opposition has occurred even though the OU website states that the university “supports and encourages students to gather and form community and collaboration through registered student organizations,” saying such groups help students “feel more connected to their peers, the campus, and university” and makes those students “more likely to graduate and report higher levels of satisfaction with their college experience.”

Watson said Turning Point has successfully addressed all legitimate concerns raised by the administration and other groups, and praised OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. for “supporting our right to free speech” even if he may not personally care for Coulter’s brand of polemics.

“All of us at Turning Point and within our organization really appreciate that,” Watson said.

The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings report—compiled by College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation—ranked the University of Oklahoma 38th out of 55 top national universities for its support of free speech.

The report provided a “comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses” based on surveys of 20,000 currently enrolled students, including 267 students at OU.

At the University of Oklahoma, just 43 percent of surveyed students said it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus, and 83 percent said it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech on campus.

Watson hopes students will attend Coulter’s speech and form their own opinions.

“Expose yourself to different ideas and think for yourself. That’s what I want everyone to know,” Watson said. “You can’t just believe everything that the news tells you or that Twitter tells you or Instagram tells you. You need to go out, do the research yourself, and just really intake those different ideas.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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