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Wartburg senior getting threats after conservative chapter approved on campus

Wartburg senior getting threats after conservative chapter approved on campus

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After two years and a failed Student Senate vote in 2017, Emily Russell, seen here on the Wartburg campus, got her Turning Point USA group approved at the Waverly college.

WAVERLY — Emily Russell should have felt nothing but excitement when she finally won approval to start a chapter of the conservative student group Turning Point USA at Wartburg College.

At first, that was exactly the Wartburg senior’s reaction.

“Absolutely no words to describe what I’m feeling right now,” she wrote on her Facebook profile Dec. 12, the day the Wartburg Student Senate voted to approve the chapter. “After 2 years of battling, Turning Point USA has been officially APPROVED at Wartburg College with a vote of 33-14! I have a new sense of hope now for free speech on college campuses!”

But in the days since, Russell has found herself the target of threatening messages on Snapchat, including one that listed her home address. That has prompted a security escort around campus the past few days.

“Obviously, I wish I was more upbeat and excited about it,” Russell said by phone Monday. “But right now, since I’ve been battling the negativity and the threats, that’s kind of rained on my parade.”

The vote last week capped a process that began when Russell was a sophomore. She and a fellow student at the time, Haley Cannon, attended a Turning Point USA conference and wanted to start their own chapter. TPUSA’s website says the Arizona-based nonprofit trains college students in conservative principles and is “active on more than 1,500 campuses.”

But the Student Senate in 2017 denied the request, with senators saying they were worried about a “professor watchlist” Russell and Cannon specifically said would be not included at their chapter. Another senator dismissively said the college “already had 180 groups” on campus.

Two years later, Russell credits a more sympathetic Student Senate president in Trevor Hurd, a vote using anonymous paper ballots, and her own work as a part-time campus coordinator for TPUSA for helping to turn the tide.

“It’s interesting that it was 33-14 this time around because I actually took a stronger stance on a lot of the things Turning Point does,” Russell said. “That was kind of my focus last time — I tried to appease everyone, tried to compromise — and this time I owned it and said, ‘Yes, we have conservative ideas, we stand behind the professor watchlist.’ I just took a stronger stance.”

The group’s constitution does specify Wartburg Turning Point USA will not be allowed to speak on social issues, hold something called an “affirmative action bake sale” or participate in “any activity or dialogue that intentionally marginalizes specific groups of people.” The constitution notes the group will only be allowed to adhere “to our mission statement and nothing more.”

Russell said the group’s mission statement notes it stands for free markets, limited government, capitalism and the U.S. Constitution, as well as the First Amendment. She said the Wartburg chapter will not take part in the TPUSA professor watchlist — which calls out professors the group says promote “leftist propaganda in the classroom” — but said it was still a valuable tool for conservatives.

“We have to hold our professors accountable,” Russell said. “College is an investment, and I think students have a right to know.”

Hurd, a senior history and political science major, said he worked closely with the Student Senate faculty adviser and followed bylaws and procedures closely in working with Russell.

“Obviously, this is a sensitive issue. Turning Point tends to be more provocative than, say, a normal group,” Hurd said. But he said Russell accepted the changes the Senate asked for. “So, ultimately, the senators took that as a willing effort made by the organization.”

But not everyone took it that way. On Twitter after the vote, students and alumni called out not just Russell, but the Student Senate and the college as a whole.

“Thank you so much for giving marginalized communities the middle finger today by @WartburgSenate approving an organization that has ties to racist, homophobic, and white nationalist ideologies,” wrote Twitter user @ToddJoseph20, who described himself in a thread as an alum.

“(F)unding and supporting TPusa is an attack against the students who the college want to protect,” said another user.

Even former Wartburg Student Body president and 2018 Wartburg graduate Naomi Alene, who abstained from voting in 2017, chimed in.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in @WartburgSenate today,” she wrote. “Don’t have slogans like ‘You Belong’ and ‘Hate Has No Place Here’ if an organization affiliated with the KKK and neo-Nazi’s are welcomed on campus.”

Russell denies her group is affiliated with neo-Nazis or the KKK, but said she’s gained a new perspective in her two years of battling.

“I’ve learned that I have every right to feel the way I feel about things,” she said. “It’s just hard because people have so many misconceptions about the organization; they’re not substantiated. They claim we’re affiliated with hate groups. We’re actually a pretty positive group.”

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Wartburg Dean of Students Dan Kittle said he’s heard “a variety of emotions” regarding the vote, but said the Senate and the group worked in a “spirit of civility.”

“I, too, share concerns about some of the activities associated with the national TPUSA,” Kittle wrote in a statement to The Courier on Tuesday, noting the “tenor of the process” this year had changed from 2017. “They wanted a TP chapter on campus to engage in dialogue about the benefit of a market economy, not to engage in the divisive actions employed by some in the TPUSA network.”

Despite the threats, Russell said she plans to begin scheduling meetings and events for the Wartburg TPUSA group next semester; those interested can check out the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/WartburgCollegeTPUSA/. After she graduates in May, her vice president, junior Reid Kallenbach, is expected to take over the group.

“The way I’ve noticed Wartburg is, is a certain group of people have the power to expose students to their ideas. ... College should be all about the exchange of ideas,” Russell said. “If people can see that I’ve been battling the negativity, and people have been threatening me over the existence of a group that holds different ideas — if people can see that — that’s a huge thing.”

Hurd agreed with Kittle that the group deserved “the benefit of the doubt.”

“You can’t judge the students trying to establish themselves. You can’t deem them guilty before they’ve even had a chance,” he said. “Wartburg has always, traditionally, cultivated a strong atmosphere of civil discourse. I don’t expect any issue to come from it.”

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Staff Writer

Courier staff writer (currently politics) from 2007-2012 and from 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa Associated Press Media Editors award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018).

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