Often considered a key social hub of the University, Frist Campus Center is a place where students gather to do work, socialize, and enjoy themselves. But on Friday, Oct. 5, members of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) were the only ones who could truly say they were having a ball on Frist North Lawn.
More specifically, members of the organization brought what they called a “Free Speech Ball,” a giant beach ball, to the front of the building and encouraged passersby to write their most controversial opinions on the ball.
The University’s chapter of TPUSA was founded last year and gained official Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) approval at the beginning of this year, according to Riley Heath ’20, the president of the University’s chapter of TPUSA.
According to its website, TPUSA is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded on June 5, 2012. The organization’s website claims its mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” The organization has advocated for issues related to personal liberty, ranging from free speech to gun control. The group has been met with both support and pushback from students on campus.
The Free Speech Ball event was TPUSA’s first large advocacy event on campus. At the same time, TPUSA members handed out free copies of the Constitution.
“People can write whatever they want on [the ball],” Heath said at the event. “The whole goal is that they see other people [with] the same unpopular opinions as them and feel as if they can be more open about [their opinions].”
Opinions written on the ball included but were not limited to “believe women,” “Princeton is a little overrated,” “Hillary is a goddamn demon,” “white privilege doesn’t exist,” and one depiction of male genitalia.
The organization was founded by Charlie Kirk, a controversial author and public figure known for criticizing Democrats and his hard-right stances on issues such as immigration. Kirk previously claimed that colleges are “Marxist indoctrination centers and left-wing activist training camps” and that lawyers advising immigrants on how to declare asylum is “the latest strategy by the border jumpers and globalists to destroy our borders and the rule [of] law.”
Heath noted that not all of Kirk’s views were representative of TPUSA as a whole or the University’s TPUSA chapter.
“Every chapter is given a great deal of independence,” Heath explained. “I definitely think [Kirk] says some dumb stuff sometimes.”
Sungho Park ’22 is a former member of TPUSA’s executive board, having since left the organization due to ideological differences. He claimed the organization is more accurately described as a “libertarian” than “conservative” organization. He also described the organization as “non-partisan,” claiming that although the organization still espouses a particular ideology, that does not necessarily make it beholden to one party.
“Most of [their] members are conservative-leaning,” Park acknowledged. “But that does not mean we cannot be non-partisan. I don’t think party and ideology should be aligned.”
The TPUSA website, however, wrote that the organization’s mission is to “build the most organized, active, and powerful conservative grassroots activist network.”
Park made the distinction that he does not believe the organization to have an opinion on “social issues,” such as abortion or LGBTQ+ rights, but just on issues of “personal freedom,” such as advocating for free markets or free speech. Park himself said he was not very socially conservative, saying that he is pretty indifferent socially.
Heath echoed much of Park’s assessment, agreeing that a lot of TPUSA’s members tend to fit under libertarian or conservative umbrella. Heath, however, reiterated that the chapter is open to a variety of ideas and disagreement.
“We allow anybody with any kind of ideas as long as they can agree to simple, pro-freedom type ideas like free markets or free speech,” Heath said. “It’s about the ideas, not the people.”
Heath and Mack Blanz ’19, the chapter treasurer, are two of the founding members of the group. Blanz described himself as more of a centrist than some of his fellow members. According to Blanz, he felt drawn to Turning Point after the 2016 election, when he felt isolated in his political views.
“There wasn’t really a spot for people left alone after 2016,” Blanz said. “There were definitely people in the middle who felt left out.”
The group advocates for its beliefs on campus through holding “advocacy events” such as the Free Speech Ball, tabling in Frist, or inviting speakers to campus. The chapter had 30 people sign up at the activities fair at the beginning of the year and, according to Park and Heath, it now has 90 members signed up.
The group has been met with some controversy on campus. In response to advertising for one of its invited speakers, Parkland shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv, students debated on the Butler Buzz listserv about how this Dec. 4 event was presented to students.
TJ Smith ’20 accused the advertisement of being “ambiguously worded” and warned others on the listserv to know what the speaker and the organization advocated for prior to attending. Smith was alarmed that there was no mention of Kashuv’s pro-gun rights views in the email distributed to students. Instead, the email invited students to “[c]ome listen to a survivor’s take on guns and America.”
“It can be harmful to people’s mental health to go to events like this, if they are not clear on what the event is actually about,” Smith wrote in an email to the listserv.
Smith has not responded to request for comment.
S Sanneh ’19, who replied with a similar accusation on the Wilson Wire listserv, felt that TPUSA deliberately attempted to mislead students with their advertising.
“They have a right to their opinions … but the issue I have comes from when they’re sending out these ambiguously worded emails and misrepresenting their events,” she said about TPUSA’s presence on campus.
In her reasoning for responding to the email, she noted that TPUSA is not the only group on campus she feels misleads students. Sanneh pointed out that the Anscombe Society also uses the same misleading tactics.
“As a person who is part of the LGBT community, [I] have gone to an Anscombe Society function not knowing what they represent,“ said Sanneh. “It is uncomfortable for students who belong in communities that [these student groups] seem to be against to show up to these events, thinking one thing and then being surrounded by rhetoric that we don’t agree with at all and we’re not even prepared for.”
Heath defended the group’s advertising, saying that while the vagueness was entirely intentional, it was not meant to mislead. Heath noted that the first email was sent out a few days after the Pittsburg shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and he felt advertising Kashuv’s pro-gun views would be seen as insensitive and would have discouraged people to attend.
“We made our advertising like that for a reason,” Heath said. “We wanted to be sensitive, because it was a very sensitive topic.”
The event itself consisted of a 30-minute speech by Kashuv, who is also TPUSA’s director of high school outreach. His speech was followed by an extensive Q&A, in which people who disagreed with Kashuv were allowed to ask their questions first.
“It’s still kind of crazy to me why a bunch of Ivy League students would care what a 17-year-old schmuck has to say, but I’m very grateful that you guys came here tonight,” Kashuv said during the event. “Hopefully, I can change your mind about the common misconceptions about guns in America.”
In his speech, he went on to discuss what he believes should be learned from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, what he considers “common misconceptions about guns in America,” his take on originalism, and a point-by-point rebuttal to March for Our Lives’ policy agenda.
All 56 seats in McCormick 106, a relatively small classroom in the art museum, were filled, with many students forced to stand during the talk. About 75 people attended the event.
Students across the political spectrum came to listen and question the speaker.
John Hariri ’22 said that he wanted to hear what Kashuv had to say about gun rights, since Kashuv had such a unique perspective on this issue.
“It’s a perspective you don’t hear a lot … on this campus,“ said Hariri. “So I was excited to see what he would say, … what the people who came to disagree with him had to say, … and how he would respond.”
Grace Brightbill ’21 came to the talk primarily for her public speaking class.
“I’m writing a paper … in support of gun control,” she said, “so I thought it would be really interesting to get a counter-argument here.”
Abraham Waserstein ’21, who asked Kashuv questions about the AR-15’s damage potential and statistics that Kashuv cited in his speech, enjoyed the event.
TPUSA currently has plans to bring even more speakers to campus. The next on its list is Pete Hegseth ’03, a Fox News Contributor, and it hopes to eventually bring in speakers such as Dave Rubin or Ben Shapiro, prominent libertarian and conservative commentators, respectively.
“We want dialogue,” Blanz said. “We want debate.”
Given both the support and the controversy the group has garnered, Blanz and Heath concluded that, at least to some extent, they have gotten that wish.