Turning Point USA — a conservative student group previously suspended by the University of Wyoming’s student government — can again request access to student fees for both big-name speakers and smaller events.
The change came after an audit of all student organizations prompted by legislative and administrative pressure — according to state legislators and members of ASUW — at the end of a nearly two-hour debate Tuesday night in the ASUW Senate Chambers, during a meeting attended by three members of the Wyoming House of Representatives.
“It appears what we thought happened, did happen, and that is that Turning Point was treated unfairly,” said Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, who was not at the ASUW meeting but has closely followed the campus controversy.
“There’s no doubt that they only did the audit because legislators had emailed the president of UW.”
Turning Point gained a mix of admiration and notoriety from the student body for inviting conservative commentator Dennis Prager campus during the fall 2017 semester. Though some students — including an executive member of ASUW, the student government — protested the campus visit and attempted to have Prager disinvited, the event moved ahead peacefully.
Following Prager’s speech — which was funded largely through $10,000 of mandatory student fees allocated by ASUW — the student government suspended the group, forbidding it from requesting further funding for a year. The suspension cited the group’s many violations of ASUW’s finance policy — charges the group does not refute — and marked the first time a student organization faced punishment under a new regulation passed by ASUW in April 2017.
Turning Point violated ASUW policy by offering tickets through an online vendor, and by failing to prioritize students the night of the event, letting members of the public into the auditorium before students.
Communicating with ASUW leadership through UW administration, some lawmakers voiced concern over the group’s suspension, claiming the move was politically motivated. In response, ASUW ordered its RSO Funding Board to conduct the audit, during which it found several other student organizations had committed minor infractions and three — Turning Point, the Jazz Advocates of Wyoming and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement — would deserve suspension.
Tim Nelson, president of Turning Point’s UW chapter, said he felt some members of ASUW targeted his group following Prager’s visit.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a liberal bias on campus,” he said. “I mean, we’re in Wyoming. But I think there are select members — I don’t know every single member of ASUW, I can’t say for sure on their standing — but I would say that there are select members in there that may be politically motivated to do this.”
Nelson said he was not surprised, however, given the nature of Turning Point — a national organization that has been criticized for pouring large sums of money into student government elections at other universities, and which has faced pushback on the UW campus since its event in November.
“We’re always going to receive scrutiny,” Nelson said. “What we do is inherently controversial because we are bringing in different ideas to campus that aren’t usually brought to campus, so yeah, we’re going to face more scrutiny.”
Recognizing the need for a middle ground between taking no action and suspension, ASUW’s legislation Tuesday gave the student government power to place groups on probation.
ASUW President Ben Wetzel said under probation, groups are still allowed to request funding from ASUW, but will be watched more closely. If groups on probation violate the finance policy, even with a minor infraction, they will be suspended.
“It’s a second chance,” Wetzel said. “If you do something small, if it was an accident, we’re going to help you learn from your mistake and then move forward rather than just suspending people so it gives us a lot more flexibility to the senate to make those decisions.”
But the legislation also made a one-time exception for the suspended groups, moving them to probation.
Wetzel said this gave the groups a clean slate and acknowledged ASUW had not been as clear as it should have been about its policies and the punishments for violating those policies.
“We don’t want to treat any group differently,” he said. “Although (Turning Point) does have multiple infractions that would — under this new legislation — count as major and lead to suspension, we’re going to move them to probation as we would any other organization, in order to be equitable about it.”
The senate debated this point for more than two hours as amendments were proposed and contested. Summing up these debates, ASUW Senator Alex Gunter said both those for and those against revoking the suspension seemed to be on a “moral crusade.”
“Either side is going to rationalize however they want,” Gunter said. “The purpose is not to forget the wrongdoings. The purpose is to forgive those wrongdoings.”
Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, and Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, were both in attendance, though neither spoke. Biteman and Clem co-sponsored a bill this week which would forbid UW or any of the community colleges from disinviting speakers.
Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, was also present but did not speak. Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, was not present but did write a letter to ASUW urging the senators not to be swayed by outside influences and to represent only their own constituents — the students.
UW Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Blackburn spoke at one point, saying he was reluctant to give advice but compelled to.
He advised ASUW to revoke the suspension.
“The only reason Turning Point USA is in the position they are in is because of the notoriety of that event,” he said. “None of you — none of you — cared about violations prior to Turning Point USA.”
With its suspension now revoked, Nelson said Turning Point is looking forward to next year.
“The Prager event was successful, was a big event,” he said. “That was the first really big event that we’ve done and besides these minor infractions, it was very successful. The way I’m looking at it: it’s a learning experience. We’re only going to get better from here.”