By Sarah Tewksbury, Free Press Staff
The response from USM students to the presidential election and President Trump’s first days as the nation’s leader has been strong and active. All campuses have seen protests, walkouts, demonstrations, calls for action and a general mobilization of students to come together to either fight or support the new presidential administration. Groups at USM, on both ends of the political spectrum, have organized to voice their opinions.
Loud progressive voices have been heard, given attention, opportunities and resources. Since the election, large populations of USM students have sought out ways they can fight back. Student Action established a chapter at USM. A bus full of USM students traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the Women’s March on January 21. There has been a major increase in leftist groups and ideals on campus.
However, not all students identify with the assumed collective identity of USM students that has been created. Students who classify themselves as being to the right side on the political spectrum believe they are underrepresented on campus. However, the population of individuals at USM who consider themselves conservative, Republican or traditionalist is larger and better organized than most realize.
An anonymous survey showed that a majority of USM student responders who identify themselves as Republican, very conservative or both did not know that there were groups on campus that catered to their political ideology. However, USM is home to a variety of groups that accommodate conservative ideologies. College Republicans and a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom have both found a place on campus to discuss what they consider to be significant.
The chairman of Young Americans for Freedom at USM, Ben Bussiere, provided the Free Press information about both the group’s goals and work on campus, as well as his own personal views on conservatism at USM. A former USM Student Government Association senator, Bussiere engages actively with other students via Facebook, through his participation in groups on campus and with his peers.
As a 501c3 organization, USM Young Americans for Freedom is technically a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and therefore cannot endorse candidates during political elections. Because of this, the group’s main focus is not to mobilize in support of a specific political party, but rather to come together and share a collective ideology of conservative values. Historically, the national group of Young Americans for Freedom was founded in the 1960s on college campuses to bring together conservative and libertarian students.
While the group currently has few members, Bussiere believes that group is strong and active on campus. This semester, the Young Americans for Freedom hopes to better engage with the student body. In the past, the group has brought speakers to USM, such as the 1st Congressional District’s Republican candidate Mark Holbrook, as well as a lawyer from Portland to talk about voting “no” on question three to oppose potential background checks on those purchasing a gun during the 2016 election cycle. In the future, Bussiere says the group hopes to bring speakers, such as Governor Paul LePage, to talk about the conservative perspective, as well as an unnamed female speaker to discuss abortion.
Bussiere also has a leadership role, in collaboration with Alex Shaffer, in the USM chapter of the College Republicans. The College Republicans and the Young Americans for Freedom at USM meet together every couple of weeks to discuss current events, bringing speakers to USM and the message and ideology of their conservative political views.
“We welcome students at USM to come join in the discussions we have at College Republicans,” Shaffer said. “It is not just a group for people with one specific viewpoint. It is a place for everyone to come learn and understand, and even discuss, the Republican message.”
Shaffer went on to explain that the group has members who are moderate as well as members who are more radical but noted that all are welcome to participate.
Bussiere said that the Young Americans for Freedom group was also inclusive, but made it clear that it was a place for students with conservative values to feel safe voicing their opinions.
“If a student is remaining silent because of fear that their opinion will not be the popular one, I will help that student voice their ideas and fight for their rights,” Bussiere said.
Free speech in the classrooms of USM has also been a hotly contested idea among conservative students. Many conservatives on campus believe that USM is failing to protect the rights of students who do not align with a political left or liberal identity, with conservative students often finding themselves in extremis and fearing the seemingly inevitable backlash to their opinions. Bussiere identified these students as “closet conservatives,” drawing a parallel to the idea that they are afraid to voice their thoughts because they will lose favor with their liberal professors and classmates.
In light of the recent election, Bussiere and other conservative students at USM have agreed that there is one fallacy associated with traditional, Republican values: that all who identify as Republican are bigots, fascists and racists. Bussiere further explained that he believes Liberals use buzzwords to silence any voice that disagrees with them, because they don’t “know how to have a rational intellectual conversation with someone and debate ideas.”
“I’m not saying all, but I’m saying many, have not developed or fortified their ideology so they just use buzzwords to suppress conservative voices and I think that’s a big problem,” he said. “I think that the use of those buzzwords to try to silence those individuals in the classroom, actually gets in the way of political discourse, as well as some type of common ground. It’s a way to undermine freedom of speech and it’s continually used on college campuses.”
As a national entity, the Young Americans for Freedom agrees with this idea. In a free pamphlet that the group will mail to any individual who provides their address, the national group discusses how college students can combat liberal professors, administrators and institutions that they feel are taking away their freedom of speech.
The national and local USM chapters of the Young Americans for Freedom encourage students to begin conversations with liberal students to try to come to help one another learn about the other perspective. Conservative students at USM feel like they are being silenced and are not welcome to share their point of view.
In late November, Bussiere attended an event where students were discussing comments that Trump made in 2005 during a conversation with Billy Bush. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” said Trump. When he offered his opinion as an attempt to have an informed discussion about the issue, Bussiere believes he was shut down.
At the event, Bussiere said that during this election cycle, “you have the choice between [Trump] or a woman [Hillary Clinton] who is willing and choosing to marry a man who has been accused of being a sexual predator, year after year, and time after time. They accused me of being a sexist and I said, well let me explain myself. Then they said, well you know, we’re not going to let you explain yourself. That’s the kind of silencing that you see multiple times in the classroom environment.”
While Bussiere’s political and social commentary may seem extreme, it is important to note that not all conservatives have the same ideologies, especially among USM students. Some students who identify as “conservative” say they experience the dynamic of being silenced on campus as well. Responders to a survey offered insight into how they believe they have been silenced on campus because of their conservative values, and how they have only felt comfortable sharing their stories with the Free Press anonymously.
One responder, who identified themselves as a slightly conservative student and has chosen to stay anonymous, stated, “I feel that sometimes we are made to conform to what the professor has to stay, because if not we may not get the same treatment as people who agree with them get.”
Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women and gender studies, spoke to the issues surrounding the relationship between professors and students who disagree about fundamental values and political ideologies. Feiner said that in today’s political climate, conservative students often confuse the discussion of class materials with an attack on freedom of speech.
The tense environment created in a classroom when a student mistakes a conversation for a violation of freedom of speech is cause for concern for professors. Some educators are growing increasingly more concerned that if a conservative student is awarded a less than favorable grade because of the quality of their work, liberal professors will be reported for unfair behavior.
While conservative students feel like their freedom of speech is being infringed upon, they also believe that religious freedom is being attacked.
“I have stressed that I am not a supporter of homosexuality or such things as that. I’ve been called a homophobe and a bigot because of my religious principles. So that’s one thing that I continually see from the left, is an assault on religious freedom,” Bussiere said.
An anonymous responder to a survey wrote, “USM professors preach only their opinions. My religion and political views have been bashed multiple times throughout the years, but in hypocrisy, I’m the one that’s closed-minded and intolerant. I’ve been proactive in contacting the dean of my college about this issue, as I was verbally insulted in class when sharing an opinion I had while presenting a project. The dean met with me, but did nothing but defend the professors in the matter.”
Recently, tension on campuses between progressive students and conservative students across the United States have increased. Through the educational process, students have fostered their own political identities and have decided what action they want to take to voice their opinions. UC Berkeley’s protest on February 1 called into question the ability of the two ends of the political spectrum to communicate effectively with one another, an issue that is currently plaguing USM.
“They’ve taken away God and they want to make government God in society. They want to make the state the means by which the people look to. They don’t want people to have any faith in something greater than themselves because they want them to have faith in something called the state,” said Bussiere in regards to what he feels liberals are doing to Christians.
Though students who call themselves conservative make claims that their freedoms are being infringed upon, the real political issues on campus are rooted in a great lack of communication. USM is a public academic institution that students attend to further their education and broaden their knowledge of various subjects. The end goal is ultimately the same for all individuals pursuing a degree at USM.
The existence of political and activist groups on campus help many students to explore, learn and fortify views, opinions and perspectives. Though the conservative groups on campus are present, their nature has been more reserved while leftist and liberal groups have been exceedingly vocal. The clashes between conservative students who assume all liberal students are ignorant and vice versa have been immense.
“It is quite obvious on campus that if you speak your mind freely, the mob attacks you and it’s mob rule in a classroom,” said Bussiere. “You have one conservative who is outspoken, like myself, and you have ten to fifteen students attacking you. That’s generally the nature of how things happen if you have a conservative voice on campus.”