When conservative commentator Dennis Prager visited the University of Wyoming in November, his planned speech — and even just his presence — set off a flurry of debate across campus.
Protesters argued Prager should be disinvited, citing his controversial opinions on everything from homosexuality to climate change. Prager’s supporters argued he should be allowed to speak, citing principles of free speech.
The night of the event, protesters stood silently by the venue entrance as roughly 600 people, both students and members of the Laramie community, shuffled into the Education Auditorium.
The debate has returned, more than a month later, as Turning Point USA — the student group responsible for inviting Prager to campus — fights a suspension levied at it by student government after ASUW determined the group violated its funding policy.
“A lot of RSOs (recognized student organizations) violate small pieces of financial policy like we did and so, based on that, I do think it was driven by politics,” said Jessica Leach, UW chapter president of Turning Point. “Without funding, we are pretty much unable to host an event like that in the future.”
RSOs can request funding for special events through the student government. ASUW’s RSO Funding Board evaluates each request and bumps requests more than $1,000 up to the full student senate for approval. These funds come from mandatory student fees.
Turning Point — a national student movement with conservative ideals, which arrived in Laramie around May — requested the maximum amount, $10,000, to offset the $17,000 it paid Prager.
The funds were approved by both the funding board and full senate, but were attached to policies about how to advertise for and host an ASUW-sponsored event.
Turning Point is the first student group to be penalized for violating these policies, Wetzel said.
“For a long, long time, we’ve had issues with RSOs violating the finance policy and no way to hold them accountable,” he said. “So, the power to do this was actually added into our finance policy last April, and this was the first time, to our knowledge, that an RSO violated the finance policy since we added in this section.”
One of two main violations cited in the suspension involves selling tickets. Turning Point offered free tickets through a website called Eventbrite.
“In the finance policy, it says that any ticketed RSO program or activity funded by ASUW shall utilize the Wyoming Union ticket office, Fine Arts Box Office or a similar venue for ticket dispersal to students,” Wetzel said.
Leach said the policy was vague and her group’s infraction was minor.
“We didn’t know necessarily the stipulations of the words ‘similar venue,’” she said.
Turning Point also failed to make it clear only ticketed guests would be allowed into the auditorium and — on the night of the event — failed to prioritize students, Wetzel said.
“Students pay the mandatory student fee so that their programming and their services and everything is provided to them all throughout their term on campus, and they don’t have to incur secondary costs,” he said. “So, for students to pay this $700 mandatory fee and then try to attend a speaker on campus and get turned away, is kind of counter to what we stand for.”
Wetzel added the other primary violation involved Turning Point’s promotion of the event. Posters for the event, visible across campus, neglected to include the ASUW logo — a requirement the student government is very concerned with.
“If we’re going to fund an event, we want students to know its an ASUW-funded event and they can attend for free,” Wetzel said.
Leach said her group began adding stickers of the ASUW logo in the days leading up to the event, once they were informed about the violation.
“We began putting stickers on them and that was taken care of,” she said. “However, close to the event, a lot of the posters were getting ripped down and so they were being replaced with other posters that didn’t have the stickers on them yet. And that miscommunication happens a lot with RSOs hosting events.”
While Turning Point is the first RSO to be punished under the new policy, ASUW will continue to scrutinize all funding requests, even taking a closer look at funding requests approved throughout the current semester.
“We only have so much money and it’s kind of first-come-first-serve as RSOs have their events,” ASUW Senator Haley Fried said. “And so I think it’s a way for ASUW to create a transparent and consistent communication with the RSOs at the University of Wyoming.”
Fried added she did not expect more suspensions, even as ASUW looks into past funding requests.
“If we look back into it, I think there would be little things here and there, but I don’t think it would be on as big of a scale as what Turning Point violated,” she said.
Leach said she acknowledged her group had made mistakes and broken the funding policy, but added suspension was too harsh a punishment.
“The repercussions that we’ve received do not necessarily match the small violations that occurred,” she said.
A suspension bans Turning Point from receiving funds from the RSO Funding Board until the spring 2019 semester, but does not ban them from seeking money through other sources, even other sources on campus, Wetzel said.
“It doesn’t even mean that we won’t support them,” he said. “Our director of RSO relations helps with event planning and registering events on Collegiatelink, and they can still do all of that. They are by no means cut off from ASUW services, it just means they cannot apply for this pot of funding for the remainder of the semester and then one calendar year.”
A GoFundMe page, aiming to raise $10,000 for the Turning Point UW chapter, states donations to the campaign will help “host future successful, educational events in Laramie despite the leftist pushback on campus.”
The fundraiser had raised $2,826 by press time Wednesday.
The suspension was not politically motivated, Wetzel said.
“The people that brought forward the issues pertaining to this event and its violations of the finance policy were members of the senate that had actually voted to support the event and had been supporting the event all the way through,” he said.
Leach said her group is appealing the suspension.