Hood College Republicans club's display causes backlash, possible penalties

2017-04-21 | Foster's Daily Democrat

April 21--A display at Hood College intended to spark discussion of hot-button topics has instead been met with criticism and possible penalties for the creators if the college determines they violated school policy.

The Hood College Republicans club on Tuesday decorated a glass case displayed in the Whitaker Student Center with material highlighting conservative viewpoints on topics including abortion and transgender people. Club members said they intended the display, which is available for student groups to use on a rotating basis, to highlight conservative culture and to invite an open discussion of different beliefs.

But students, alumni and faculty instead framed the controversial quotations and images as hateful and threatening, particularly to the minority groups mentioned in the material. Some have called for the display to be removed ahead of the scheduled takedown next Tuesday.

Hood President Andrea Chapeldaine in an email sent to students, faculty and staff Thursday called for the college to review the messages based on "college procedures" to determine if the display violated campus policies, "with appropriate sanctions to follow if such a determination be made." The email did not specify the procedure or penalties.

Chapeldaine also sent an email Wednesday in response to concerns from students, faculty and alumni, some of whom had called for the display to be removed. A new display would otherwise take its place on Tuesday based on the scheduled rotation.

Chapeldaine wrote that "as an educational community, our best response is not with the act of taking down a display, but in how to move forward."

In the email, she invited members of the campus community to attend a student-organized forum scheduled for Tuesday.

Concerns, criticism

A steady stream of students and faculty stopped by the second floor of the student center to see the display, which was still up as of early Thursday afternoon.

One person pointed to a quote from Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator and writer. Shapiro was quoted as saying, "transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness, and it is not a solution to pretend that transgender people are the sex that they think they are in their head. Biology is biology; men can't magically become women and women can't magically become men."

Lynda Sowbel, director of and teacher in the college's social work program, singled out this quote as particularly hateful.

"Some of these things might make students who are here feel threatened, and that's not OK," she said.

Hanan Zinab, president of the Hood Black Student Union, voiced a similar opinion.

"For me, it's not freedom of speech," said Zinab, 20. "It's freedom of hatred."

Black people were also singled out in the display.

One poster depicted a photo of a black female toddler and the words "Let's talk about race ... abortion is the number one killer of black lives in the United States." Another stated, "the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb."

Kris Fair, a Hood graduate who was president of the college's LGBTQ club when he was still a student, denounced the display as "an unfounded piece of propaganda." Fair, who is running as a Democrat for the city's Board of Aldermen, also heads the board of directors of The Frederick Center, an LGTBQ service and advocacy agency. His comments represented his personal views, he said.

Fair called for the college to review "what it means to allow free speech," adding that he thought there should be "requirements for some respect behind the language you're using."

Paula Del Valle, a 20-year-old junior and member of the Hood College Democrats club, wasn't sure if she thought the display should be removed. But she was certain in her disagreement with some of the statements and ideology represented on that board, calling it "divisive and hurtful."

"I don't think it represents Hood," she said.

Sowbel, who has worked at Hood for 17 years, also highlighted the college's inclusiveness, naming gender-neutral bathrooms as one example.

Jordyn Curtis, 20, vice president of the Black Student Union, also said she didn't feel that black students at Hood were targeted with racist remarks or actions. But the display's more controversial statements about blacks were still a knock on what is a relatively small black student population, she said.

Club's response

Christopher Gardner, president of the college Republicans, addressed concerns with the display in a phone interview Thursday. He said it was "unfortunate" that some students were hurt by the messages in the display, but maintained that the club achieved its original intention of inviting conversation about the topics.

"We just wanted to provoke thoughtful discussion," said Gardner, 22, a senior. "We have done that."

He added that the display includes information for the Republicans club meeting on Sunday, inviting people of all viewpoints to an open discussion.

The viewpoints expressed in the display do not reflect everything that individual members of the club, including himself, believe. For example, he said he has many friends and a relative who identify as transgender.

He also said he did not see the materials included in the display until he helped to put them up Tuesday. Two other members of his club pitched the idea to put up the display and chose the materials included, he said.

The college's student life center approves proposals for what goes in the display case. Gardner said he thought the faculty who approved the Republicans' display knew the general concept but not specific materials.

Travis Eichelberger, the college's assistant director of student engagement and coordinator of diversity and inclusion, did not respond to a phone call and an email Thursday seeking more information.

The display was put up Tuesday, but it wasn't until Wednesday that the "firestorm" of reactions began, according to Gardner. He named Facebook and Twitter as the most pervasive ways he'd been contacted.

Some people expressed support, he said. Others were more critical, and even bullied club members, according to Gardner.

He hoped critics and supporters alike would attend the club's Sunday meeting for a "civil" discussion.

Follow Nancy Lavin on Twitter: @NancyKLavin.