By: REYNA IWAMOTO / MANAGING EDITOR
Recent events surrounding the approval of the American Club on the LIU Post campus have stirred controversy culminating in contention between campuses.
In early March, the American Club, a student-led organization, was approved by the LIU Post Student Government Association (SGA) and has held various events since, handing out stickers and boasting signs with expressions including “I support free speech,” “I stand for the national anthem,” and “Socialism sucks.”
“While this organization has been approved at the Post campus and we are in Brooklyn, we must stand against the approval of organizations that stand against the values that we hold,” the press release read.
In the statement, LIU Brooklyn SGA President Vladimir Tobar also added that he is “deeply hurt that such an organization is allowed on campus. “It goes against the diversity and inclusion efforts we have been working so long to bring,” Tobar said. “We must take action and make sure this doesn't continue.”
The LIU Post SGA approves all student-run organizations on campus following the guidelines of LIU Promise. In an interview with LIU Post’s student newspaper The Tide, President Robert LaPollo explained that the vote to approve the American Club was unanimous.
“They met all of the requirements [to become a club] of Promise,” LaPollo said. “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.”
Regarding the press release and petition from the Brooklyn SGA, LaPollo said that although it was “surprising” because it was the first acknowledgment Post SGA had gotten from the Brooklyn SGA all year, he immediately thought, “we need to speak to them, we need to understand where they’re coming from.”
LaPollo added that because LIU Brooklyn and Post have different student bodies and different student governments, the campuses approve of clubs differently.
“So immediately I thought that we should have a conversation about it with them, but things started to escalate pretty quickly,” LaPollo said.
As LIU Brooklyn SGA’s petition quickly garnered hundreds of signatures after the press release was posted, LaPollo said that Post SGA began debating what its best course of action would be.
While LaPollo stated that the Post SGA has not been in contact with the Brooklyn SGA, he emphasized his organization’s priorities.
“Our SGA’s primary goal is the students here at Post because we serve the LIU Post students. I want to contact organizations on our campus and have conversations with them,” LaPollo said.
In the coming days, LaPollo said that the Post SGA will be releasing a statement reaffirming the organization’s values.
“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,” LaPollo said.
“SGA just approves the clubs that meet the requirements of Promise. And then, obviously, we monitor it afterward 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 to reflect on how they can change that.”
Meanwhile, in the weeks following Brooklyn SGA’s press release, the LIU Post Black Student Union (BSU) began calling for action to be taken to address its concerns that the existence of the American Club “will remind minority students on campus that this university is not for them, nor has it ever been for them.”
Post BSU Vice President, senior Amanda McCollum, told Seawanhaka that BSU does not take issue with the existence of the club itself, but its “affiliations with right supremacist organizations,” such as Turning Point USA.
“This is a common misconception,” McCollum said. “They have a right to exist, it’s just their affiliation with racist, sexist, homophobic interest groups…They are funded and supported by them and that is the issue.”
Turning Point USA is an American non-profit organization that promotes conservative values on over 1,400 high school and college campuses.
Despite repeated requests, the American Club did not respond to Seawanhaka’s request for comment.
However, on March 25, the club released a statement on their Instagram that read: “We the American Club at LIU Post are open to listening to all points of view and engaging in respectful & civil discussions….We will continue to proudly share our message and love for our country. We hope to be joined for important thought-provoking conversations going forward.”
While the American Club did not respond to Seawanhaka’s inquiries, American Club President Matt Cairo spoke with the LIU Post campus newspaper, the Tide, confirming his organization’s ties to Turning Point USA.
“[Turning Point USA is] the biggest organization that we are affiliated with, and the loudest and the proudest. But, that also makes them the most controversial,” Cairo said.
Cairo defended the club’s connection with the organization, saying that claims of its racism are a “misconception.”
“I understand where it came from, but the thing is, anyone affiliated with Turning Point who has said something hateful has been terminated,” Cairo said. “I view that as a positive for Turning Point if they’re terminating people who have said disrespectful stuff in public…”
In addition to the club being sponsored by Turning Point USA, McCollum also stated that she takes issue with the American Club’s behavior, which she considers racist.
At an event held at the end of March, the American Club had a dry-erase board for people to write on and contribute what free speech means to them. On the board, among other messages, was the sentence “BSU disband your organization!”
“[This is something] we have been told by their members and supporters which I consider to be racist,” McCollum said.
On March 16, BSU posted a list of demands asking for the American Club to denounce its affiliations with national organizations that “have a history of spewing white supremacist ideology.”
The organization also demanded, “acknowledgment 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, not an overworked and unqualified success coach.”
To address BSU’s concerns, McCollum and BSU President Alexis Pieters met with members of LIU Administration, including Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Berthel.
In an emailed response to Seawanhaka’s inquiries, Berthel confirmed that the university met with BSU and is “committed to continuing an open and respectful dialogue while acknowledging the position of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which has stated, “more speech — not less — is the answer most consistent with our constitutional values.”
Following this meeting, however, “The administration said there is nothing they can do because of free speech,” McCollum said.
In response to Seawanhaka’s questions, Berthel continued to emphasize the university’s position being consistent with that of the ACLU, promoting liberal education founded on the principle of free speech.
“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,” Berthel said. “Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protections as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible.”
However, the first amendment is often not applicable to private entities.
McCollum, a double major in criminal justice and political science, with a concentration in Constitutional Law, explained that as someone who studies the law, the University's reasoning is flawed.
“Constitutional rights are protected from government intervention — free speech doesn't necessarily exist in this context which is something they don't understand,” McCollum said.
At the end of BSU’s meeting with LIU administration, Berthel rejected the organization’s request to force the American Club to denounce its affiliation with Turning Point USA, along with denying the rest of their demands.
“His explanation was that they couldn’t at this time, but maybe another time,” McCollum said. “Nothing productive was spoken about in that meeting in regards to Turning Point USA and the American Club.”
Amidst the controversy surrounding these organizations, BSU also brought attention to a racial slur being sent through a series of images in a GroupMe chat created by Post SGA with over 500 students.
“It was not directly related to this situation with the American Club, but there is a correlation,” McCollum said. “Those people would not have felt emboldened to do that without the lack of action by Promise about the American Club. They felt they could do it because LIU Promise has done nothing.”
According to the Tide, the group chat has since been deleted. In response to this incident, however, Berthel sent an email to students addressing this use of hate speech.
“As I shared in a message to LIU Post students in March 2022, ‘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. Every member of our community has the right to feel respected and be equally valued,’” Berthel said.
On April 3, BSU held a protest in response to LIU Administration's lack of action and the group chat incident.
When asked why BSU is speaking out so strongly about this situation, McCollum replied that she is tired of the way they are being treated.
“I can't speak for the whole of BSU because I am a piece and part of it, but I can speak for the students who have come to me personally, and we are tired of the negligence, ignorance, and the outward and overt disrespect that LIU Promise has for students of color,” McCollum said.
While chapters of Turning Point USA have been banned, suspended, or not approved on school campuses throughout the country — including Lynn University, Emerson College, Point Loma Nazarene University, and Mountain View High School — going forward, LaPollo said that the Post SGA also does not have control over enforcing the removal of the American Club’s affiliations.
“That’s up to the American Club to decide,” LaPollo said.
Looking to the future, McCollum emphasized to Seawanhaka that her and BSU’s fight will not end with her, as she is “passing on” her activism to others.
“I want to make sure this place is better for the people who come after me,” McCollum said. ”I can't leave it a mess — it wouldn’t sit right with my spirit.”