OSWEGO, N.Y. – As their meeting began on the evening of April 12, several members of the Oswego College Republicans joked about transgender pronouns. For many these jokes are offensive; for the club, they are a matter of free speech.
“I don’t want someone to force me to say something I don’t want to say,” Kyle Camille, vice president, said. “I want to know them by their name and practically identify them with what they look like. If you look like a guy, I’m going to call you a guy. If you look like a chick, I’m going to call you a chick.”
Camille wears a red “Make America Great Again” hat and a large “We the People” belt buckle. He drives a loud truck with a “F*** Biden” flag flailing from the back. His friend, club president Abigayle Jordal, is more discreet, but she still proudly announced she received a pen from conservative student group Turning Point USA. The college group is like many conservatives in the red area of Upstate New York, but they said they feel excluded at SUNY Oswego for their beliefs.
Jordal said she lost two friends because of her conservatism.
“I think this campus does a poor job of making both sides of the argument visible,” Jordal said. “I think it’s only one side that’s really portrayed and I think the students hang on to that.”
Jordal noted the Black Lives Matter slogan the university posts in front of Culkin Hall and Sheldon Hall. She described the movement as a “terrorist organization that spent the money on mansions.” An April 2022 report from New York Magazine found that the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, not to be confused with the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement, purchased a $6 million home with donated funds.
Sebastian LaFontant, a club member, said the university protects liberal opinions to cater to the predominantly liberal cities that many students come from, such as New York City and Buffalo.
While Jordal and Camille identify on the hard right with no left-leaning opinions, many members at the meeting introduced themselves instead as “not full-blown Republicans.” Some considered themselves to be moderates, others libertarians.
A few members come from immigrant families who emigrated from current or formerly socialist nations. Aziz Sarimsakov, who is in charge of the club’s public relations, is from Uzbekistan. He said that because immigrants “enrich our nation” with diversity, they should undergo the proper immigration system instead of entering illegally.
“That’s why I’m a Republican,” Sarimsakov said. “Because I’m an immigrant.”
Camille has met three presidents in his lifetime. He met Barack Obama at a bar and grill in Rhode Island. He shook hands with Donald Trump while working for his 2020 presidential campaign. That same election cycle, Camille briefly interacted with Joe Biden while protesting his campaign stop. Camille found Biden more personable than Obama, who he called “a complete a**hole,” but considered Trump to be “the nicest guy [he] ever met.”
Jordal re-formed the club in fall 2022 after she felt professors in her classes were pushing a liberal agenda. She wanted to create a space for conservative students to express their political opinions without receiving scrutiny from students and faculty.
“This campus is very liberal, so it is the norm for people.” Jordal said. “When a crowd comes in with different beliefs it is hard for them to hear and try to understand why they believe those things.”
College Republicans hosted a speech from conservative activist Cherise Trump on April 5. Trump is the executive director of Speech First, an organization that files lawsuits against colleges and universities on the grounds that their policies against offensive and hateful speech infringe on the First Amendment. Trump’s defense of misgendering and referring to the acceptance of trans people as “gender ideology” made her a controversial invitee. Students protested the event with signs and banners, saying that Trump’s previous statements threatened the university’s promise of inclusivity.
A mediation meeting prior to the event resulted in an agreement for protesters to promise a peaceful sit-in and to not disrupt Trump’s speech. Jordal and Camille said the majority of protesters fulfilled this promise, until the speech concluded.
Members of the club said they received verbal harassment from protesters after the event and online harassment on social media including YikYak and Instagram. LaFontant, who is black, said somebody after the event told him he was “on the wrong side.” University Police started an investigation into the situation.
Jordal told a reporter after the event that the club plans to invite more speakers, but a week after the event the club she expressed hesitation due to the harassment.
The club spoke to Kathleen Kerr, vice president of student affairs, about the situation. Kerr said she was impressed by how most students both in support and in protest of Trump’s visit peacefully expressed their opinions.
“One of our obligations is to protect the free speech rights that exist for all members of our society,” Kerr said. “But then the second obligation that we also have to attend to is, ‘How does that occur?’ while attending to the safety needs of our campus.”
Kerr encouraged students to contact university resources for support if they felt uncomfortable on campus.
“I think sometimes it is hard when students feel like their identity is being attacked or they are being harassed as a result,” Kerr said.