In the week following last Thursday’s event at Rodrigue’s Coffeehouse, Fordham University has been embittered in a battle over the direction, role, and extension of free speech on campus. To the consternation of some, the story gained traction and captured the attention of Fox News, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannapouolus, and even Donald Trump Jr. Amid increased political polarization and, consequently, an intolerance of dissenting views, this event is not anomalous; rather, it is a reflection of the state of American politics today.
Just as the incident at Rodrigue’s highlights the political tension between conservatives and liberals, it also gives a key insight into the internal pressures that threaten the unity of the Republican Party. In the wake of the event and subsequent backlash, a few members of Fordham College Republicans reached out to the Fordham Political Review in order to illuminate the leadership and visionary issues facing the club.
Second year club member Ryan Slattery (FCRH ’20) expressed his dissatisfaction with the operation and leadership of the College Republicans. “For me there was a shift in the club’s culture following the election of the current president.” Slattery continued. “Before, the club was dedicated to debating serious topics, planning events that would promote the party, and was grounded in integrity and a firm political ideology.” According to Slattery, it was apparent after the last College Republican & College Democrat debate – this past November – that the duties associated with the office of the president were being exercised “irresponsibly, ineffectively, and negligently.” He expressed this looming trepidation that the club was being brought down the wrong path. However, for Slattery, this is not indicative of the club’s culture; rather, it is a reflection on the leadership style of club’s most senior executive board member.
For Slattery the decision to have an event, without the expressed consent of the club, was concerning. “The President of CRs has a history of provocation. It was evident when he invited Roger Stone to campus and it was made abundantly clear when he unilaterally initiated the announcement to stage the event at Rodrigue’s.” According to Slattery the event did not reflect the aims and attitudes of the club insomuch as it “was a unilaterally executed.”
Slattery was not the only one to repudiate the unilateral decision-making and theatrics of provocation. Member Linda Yenicag (GSB ’20) echoed Slattery’s concerns. “The club’s president does not know how to delegate, he doesn’t have structure, he acts arbitrarily and unilaterally without the consensus or forethought of the integrity of the club.” As a member of CRs for two years, Linda expressed her frustrations with the mishandling of club affairs. “The president, without consulting anyone beforehand, opened the semester by sharing a Ben Garrison meme, which featured a comment equating liberal complaining to autistic screeching.” While the post was eventually deleted, the College Republicans were met with criticism by current and former club members. “After the backlash [to the posting of the meme] there was a series of posts directed at those who were critical; a few people were even temporarily blocked from the page.” Yenicag saw the incident at Rodrigue’s as a culmination of unilateral decision making. While acknowledging that it is important for the club to embrace Republican values and, more broadly, promote free speech, the event was organized in an almost surreptitious manner. “After the last club meeting [on 11/30/17] the president was the one who initiated the announcement for the December 7th event at Rodrigues; there was no club wide discussion over how the event would be handled.”
The lack of political dialogue on campus and the largely apolitical student body has been a point of vexation for The College Republicans. “I think the idea of the event, to exercise our first amendment rights was a noble cause; however, I don’t think that it was a good idea to do it without the consent of the entire club” reflects Michael Esposito (FCRH ’19). While agreeing that the idea of some form of free speech exercise was shared by many members in the club, “the idea to do something of this magnitude was the president’s.” He told FPR that “in addition to making a unilateral decision to go forward with the event, the president of the club gave my phone number out to the [New York] Post, without my explicit consent.” Esposito, featured in the widely circulated video, has received multiple death threats and harassing messages over his role in the event.
When asked to comment, President Sebastian Balasov said, “There was no other e-board member involved in this event. Just because I organized the event under my own volition, doesn’t mean it’s a club sanctioned event.” Balasov continued, “Any member who wanted to join me, chose freely to do so. This was only for my friends who were interested.” He concluded by saying, “I had no involvement with bringing the video to Fox News or with the recording of the video.”
This dissatisfaction with the execution of the office of the president of College Republicans illuminates a larger ideological schism in the club. Much like the national Republican Party, the College Republicans are enmeshed in a fight over the direction of their organization. It appears as if they can either continue upon the path of arbitrary provocation, or they can eschew impulsiveness and regain control of their narrative. President Lincoln, in an 1859 speech to Northern Republicans, spoke with sagacity and perspicacity. His words, an admonition to a nation divided, remind us that civility in discourse and integrity in the execution of duty can heal even the most serious wounds:
Even though much provoked, let us know nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.