By: Caitlyn Freeman, Jake Shindel and Matt Hubbard
Towson University’s embattled chapter of Turning Point USA will remain affiliated with the college after its adviser, rhetoric professor Richard Vatz, declined to step down from the role amid revelations that members of the conservative activist group made racist and homophobic remarks.
This is despite Vatz saying in an email on Wednesday that he would step down as Turning Point’s adviser if he found evidence of racism or homophobia within the chapter.
The Towerlight asked Vatz for comment Wednesday whether he would remain as the chapter’s adviser following leaked GroupMe messages from Turning Point members circulating campus on Tuesday.
The messages showed members of the group using homophobic and admiting to using racial slurs.
Vatz said in an email Saturday afternoon that he would stay on as adviser because the Turning Point students expressed remorse for the messages
After The Towerlight provided Vatz a second batch of leaked messages showing more in-depth examples of members being homophobic and racist, he said in another email Saturday evening that he would still continue in his sponsorship role.
“Turning Point knows that their advisor was genuinely appalled and considers them effectively on probation,” Vatz said in an email on Saturday evening. “If I were a betting man (and I am not), I would bet heftily that their rhetorical immaturity and irresponsibility will never be repeated. I do believe in redemption for those who seriously seek it, especially for non-capital crimes committed by youth.”
TU requires on-campus groups to have a sponsor. Without one, a group cannot be recognized as an official on-campus organization, removing opportunities for potential funding.
Vatz’s history of club sponsorship
Vatz said he routinely sponsors conservative groups because they struggle to find allies on a predominantly liberal campus.
He was previously the sponsor of a student group called Youth for Western Civilization, which sparked controversy by chalking “white pride” on sidewalks across campus in 2012. This led to Vatz stepping down as the organization’s faculty sponsor, and the group dissolved according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After the group was dissolved, its leader, former TU student Matthew Heimbach, started the White Student Union, USA Today reported. Heimbach later founded the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist organization, according to the SPLC.
Vatz in his email distinguished Youth for Western Civilization from the Towson chapter of Turning Point, which was founded in 2016 and aims to advocate for limited government and promote free speech, according to their Involved@TU webpage.
“[YWC] were the organization that I will not sponsor,” Vatz said. “They were racist, ugly and everything that I do not like.”
TU’s Turning Point chapter is part of a national organization based in Arizona.
Right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk started Turning Point USA in 2012, according to its website. The national branch of Turning Point seeks to spread conservative values on high school and college campuses, the website states.
The additional messages
Additional messages among Towson University Turning Point members were provided to The Towerlight by the TU chapter of the Young Democratic Socialist of America. They show the members displaying bigotry toward marginalized groups, including Black and LGBTQ people.
A former member of TU Turning Point group authenticated the messages.
One thread in the messages, released Thursday, shows a group member comparing abortion to slavery.
“I would say human rights as well; it’s like saying slavery should’ve been down the states so the south could decide to keep it if they wanted to. Degrading humans because their black [sic] is the same as degrading humans because they’re in the womb and less developed. It should be illegal everywhere.”
Members of the chat were also discussing the n-word.
“I dont say that one, cause that word has really bad meaning, as in its gots so politically polarized i dont even go there as a white person,” one member wrote.
“True, but white ppl invented that word though,” another responded
“I mean Black people call each other that all the time but when a white person use it they get offended like it’s just a word,” the second member wrote.
“Quite honestly if white people cant say it no one should, kinda weird people say that to their friends.”
Additionally, a member of the chapter’s leadership was seen discussing the Monkeypox virus.
“We should also impose a month-long mandatory quarantine for ALL GAYS, BISEXUALS, and TRANSGENDERS starting on June 1, for their own safety,” they said to the group. “In addition, all sex outside of marriage should be banned as a means to curb the spread of the virus.”
Several threads show the use of homophobic slurs.
“I love the word f—-, its so funny idc if its offensive it makes me laugh,” a member wrote in the chat.
Another member of the group’s leadership said the use of LGBTQ characters within childrens television programs is indoctrination.
“Showing kids LGBTQ material,” they wrote. “All of this is propaganda, to trans the kids.”
The university’s response
TU students expressed outrage after messages began making the rounds on campus Tuesday. Several students demanded swift action from university officials.
Officials held a listening session Friday to address student concerns. The Student Affairs Office and Student Government Association sponsored the event, which roughly 50 students attended.
They focused on the university not taking action in response to the messages.
Towson officials cited First Amendment concerns in declining to punish students for the messages.
“Bigoted, homophobic, racist assholes exist on our campus,” Patricia Bradley, TU’s Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity, said to the attendees Friday. “And guess what, those bigoted, racist, homophobic assholes have constitutional protections. They have constitutional protections. Do we like it that they’re here? Do we like that they’ve said the most vile and disgusting things, ever? No, we don’t. Would we like to say, ‘get off our campus?’ ‘Not at TU?’ Absolutely. But there are some restrictions.”
While certain language may be inflammatory, it still is protected by the First Amendment, according to the TU policy for the Reporting of Hate Crimes and Bias Incidents.
“As a public institution, the University must consider free speech and academic freedom when assessing each alleged bias incident,” the policy reads. “While the expression of an idea or point of view may be hateful, offensive, or inflammatory, it may not be an actionable bias-related incident.”
Essentially, student groups’ speech is protected unless they threaten to harm other students or violate a separate university policy.
SGA Treasurer Mayra Corea told event attendees Friday that the SGA could not take action against the chapter unless it violated the organization’s financial policy.
While it has previously received money from SGA, it has yet to this semester as it doesn’t meet current requirements. These include attending specific SGA events and completing forms.
The response from Turning Point
TU Turning Point has yet to publicly address the leaked messages.
One participant in the messages, who was using homophobic slurs, said in an interview they felt pressured to do so to fit in with the group. The individual requested anonymity in fear of retribution from the group members.
“I wasn’t acting like myself,” said the participant, who left the group before the messages leaked.”I was starting to say things or do things out of the ordinary, that was not myself at all, in order to be in this cult, which I call it.”
Vatz said the group assured him several of the members who were responsible for the messages were no longer with the group. The Towerlight could not verify this claim.
“Could they be fooling me?,” Vatz said. “Yes, and if I find out that they go back on their word, I shall immediately quit as their advisor. I can be tricked, but not twice.”
Vatz said he spoke with junior Tim Yalinkilincer, the chapter’s spokesperson, who assured him that the group will not tolerate racism and homophobia.. Yalinkilincer did not respond to several phone calls, emails and voicemail messages requesting comment.
“I apologize sincerely, on behalf of myself and the rest of the club,” Yalinkilincer said in his email to Vatz. “Free speech will be respected; however foolishness that misrepresents TPUSA, its members, and conservatism as a whole will NOT happen again.”
Editors note: The Towerlight redacted the names and images of the chapter members in the screenshots as it was unable to reach each individual student by publication Sunday.