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 Dec. 12 on Facebook, 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.
“Obviously, I wish I was more upbeat and excited about it,” Russell said in an interview later. “But right now, since I’ve been battling the negativity and the threats, that’s kind of rained on my parade.”
The vote 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 a chapter.
Its website says the Arizona-based nonprofit trains college students in conservative principles and is “active on more than 1,500 campuses.”
But the Wartburg Student Senate in 2017 denied the request, with senators saying they were worried about a “professor watchlist” from turning Point USA that Russell and Cannon said would be not included at their chapter. Another senator said the college “already had 180 groups” on campus.
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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.
In 2018, the executive board of the University of Iowa’s chapter resigned in protest over comments a national group leader made after Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant, was accused of killing UI student Mollie Tibbetts.
But last year, Turning Point USA founder and executive director Charlie Kirk drew about 400 people to the UI for a stop on his “Culture Wars” tour — a speaking circuit that sometimes has included appearances from Donald Trump Jr.
At Wartburg, the group’s constitution specifies it 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 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 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 she said the list still is a valuable tool.
“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.
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“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.
Wartburg Dean of Students Dan Kittle said he’s heard “a variety of emotions” about 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, 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.”
Hurd agreed the group deserves “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.”