Sophomore and president of the Knox Conservatives Jessica Hickey began her first year at Knox in the midst of the 2016 presidential election.
“I felt like there was all this hate being spouted and it was just kind of scary,” Hickey said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to know I supported the conservative side, so it was this deal where I felt really estranged from everyone else and it was a little bit hard to talk to them without having things blow up.”
The alienation and anxiety that Hickey and other conservative students experienced peaked with the anti-Trump rally last fall. Junior Ben Haertel knows many conservative students who were harassed or assaulted around the time of the rally. Many participants conflated conservative voters with Trump supporters.
“I think a lot of conservative students—and a lot of people in town probably—were just being labeled as bad,” he said. “No one needs to listen to us because everything we believe is already wrong was the vibe I got,” Haertel said.
Haertel believes this perception of absolute right and wrong has contributed to a lack of dialogue on campus. Hickey said that joining the club freshman year gave her a space to express her political views without judgment.
According to Hickey, censorship of conservative voices on campus has eased since the election and relations between liberal and conservative students have improved. Other students offered a more cynical reading of the decreased tension, suggesting that conservative students often practice self-censorship.
“I think it’s getting a little better, but I still feel like it’s mostly just because a lot of conservative students don’t even want to go through the hassle of speaking out because it’s not worth the backlash over it,” Haertel said.
Senior club member Mark Voreis said that while most professors are conscientious of conservative viewpoints, it is often assumed that all students share the same opinions. This assumption can make it difficult for conservative students to speak up in the classroom.
“Most [professors] do a good job of hearing out different students, but the overwhelming narrative seems to be this very liberal one,” Voreis said. “You can definitely be ostracized for speaking out about how you believe about something.”
The suppression of conservative viewpoints was brought to light again last term when a picture of a Trump poster taken through a Phi Gamma Delta student’s bedroom window was posted online. This resulted in a public shaming that quickly escalated to threats against the fraternity. The issue was brought to Student Senate as a matter of public and private domain. Junior Leonard Monterey, a self-identified liberal and member of Student Senate, believes framing the problem in this way misses the point entirely.
“I feel people tend to forget when you’re commenting something, when you take pictures of something, that we are dealing with actual people,” he said.
Monterey acknowledges that the people who make up Student Senate are primarily liberals. As a senator, he would like to see students of all political affiliations represented in student government. Monterey cited instances of posters promoting political agendas, like meetings of the Knox Conservatives or M.E.Ch.A.’s sanctuary campus campaign, being ripped down.
“I want to get to a point at Knox where ideally we can have posters safely put up and you don’t have to worry about people tearing it down,” he said. “You can’t grow with your beliefs if you’re pushed into a corner and not allowed to express your views. I want it to be a place where we can actually debate and discuss because that’s the only way you’ll get change.”
The Knox Conservatives aim to foster productive and collaborative political discourse. The club’s biweekly meetings are open to students of all political backgrounds.
“We know that we have to have a dialogue with people who don’t have the same viewpoints as us,” Hickey said. “That’s how we learn, that’s how we grow.”
The Knox Conservatives plan to collaborate with the Knox Democrats in the future to improve bipartisan discourse on campus. Haertel said this debate or discussion could take various forms.
“I just hope it happens,” Haertel said. “It could be just a bunch of people gathering in the Gizmo or it could be an event held in the auditorium or one of the theaters. Really all that matters is representing different viewpoints and respectful dialogue.”