The cancellation of a controversial speaker’s appearance at a South Portland hotel this week marked the latest example of the University of Maine College Republicans club butting heads with its university in recent months.
The hotel’s cancellation of right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin’s appearance came after university administrators told the Sheraton at Sable Oaks that the student group — which was using UMaine’s name in advertising the event — was not affiliated with UMaine.
University officials said they did not recommend canceling the event, but their communication to the hotel prompted complaints from the group and Malkin — who wrote in 2004 that it’s “of questionable wisdom to continue allowing Muslims to serve the U.S. military in combat roles in the Middle East and to have access to classified information” — that they had been censored.
The tension on display in the episode grew during the fall semester as the Republican students’ club cemented its transformation from a group that encouraged students’ involvement in state politics in Augusta to a club that embraces the nationalist politics of President Donald Trump and focuses mainly on bolstering the president and bashing Democrats.
“We support American nationalism. We’re an America First conservative group,” said Jeremiah Childs, a UMaine senior and vice president of the College Republicans. “Our club supports Donald Trump in his view of the world.”
On Tuesday, UMaine’s assistant dean of students called the South Portland hotel to ask about the club’s event and set the record straight after UMaine received phone calls asking why it was hosting an event featuring Malkin, Dean of Students Robert Dana said.
“We’re all about free speech, but in this case, this was not a University of Maine event. We were not hosting Michelle Malkin, and we needed to set that record straight. And we really needed to know what was being said in terms of the university’s involvement,” Dana said. “Then [the hotel] canceled the event. They didn’t consult with us, and we certainly didn’t encourage it.”
The Sheraton hotel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Republican club later found a new venue for the Friday event in Lewiston, which Malkin afterward called a “refugee dumping ground” on Twitter. But that venue, the Gendron Franco Center, said Thursday night in a Facebook post that it would not host the event. Later on Thursday night, 2nd Congressional District GOP candidate Adrienne Bennett announced a new venue for the Friday speech, Martindale Country Club in Auburn. But a country club spokeswoman said late Friday morning that Malkin was not speaking there, either.
A semester of tension
The Malkin event’s cancellation followed a semester during which the UMaine College Republicans twice lost their status as an official student club, wrote a post about Indigenous Peoples Day on Facebook that drew widespread condemnation and a rebuke from UMaine administrators, hosted an archconservative state legislator on campus at an event that drew as many protesters as attendees, and saw a dozen members splinter off into another political group less intent on stirring up campuswide controversy.
After the club’s former adviser moved away in September, UMaine’s student government told the College Republicans they did not meet the requirements to be recognized as an official student group. The student government requires that student groups have either a staff or faculty member serve as their adviser.
Soon after, the College Republicans made their Indigenous Peoples Day post on their Facebook page.
The post included images of 15th-century Spanish war propaganda used to dehumanize indigenous people and described indigenous people Columbus and other European explorers encountered as “brutal societies.”
Dana and UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy sent out an email condemning the posting and saying it didn’t reflect UMaine’s “values and principles of inclusivity and equity.”
“We fully understand that this sort of material is upsetting to many members of our community, and it does not align with our values or the stated values of the university,” the email said.
Less than a month after the Facebook post, the College Republicans invited state Rep. Larry Lockman to speak at UMaine about immigration Oct. 30. The Bradley Republican is closely aligned with former Gov. Paul LePage and has a history of making inflammatory statements about homosexuality, rape, abortion and immigration.
The university co-sponsored the event, which drew as many student protesters as attendees.
Soon after the event, Amy Fried — chair of the political science department and a progressive Bangor Daily News columnist — agreed to advise the group at the students’ request. Fried had advised previous iterations of the College Republicans for several years.
However, after the College Republicans invited Malkin — with whom the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom cut ties after she praised Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes — Fried stepped back from the faculty adviser role.
“I resigned after the group invited a speaker who the Young Americans for Freedom removed from their speakers’ bureau because of her ties to a Holocaust denier,” Fried said. “I exercised my freedom of association.”
After Fried’s resignation, around Nov. 25, the College Republicans again lost their official student organization status.
The College Republicans’ plan to invite controversial conservative speakers to a Christmas party in December led a dozen members to split from the group and form their own club earlier this month.
The new group, which has about 35 members, is a bipartisan club called the UMaine Young Americans for Liberty, according to Dylan Oliver, the group’s president and a UMaine junior. The College Republicans have 20 to 25 members, Childs said.
Fried is the new group’s faculty adviser, as well as the adviser for the UMaine College Democrats.
“We don’t want to host controversial speakers and earn a bad reputation,” Oliver said. “We just believe in having a more effective outcome on campus with the events we host.”
However, the Young Americans for Liberty supported the College Republicans when they heard about the Malkin event’s cancellation.
“While we don’t always agree with you all over at the College Republicans, we don’t want your members or group censored,” the group said in a comment on Facebook. “We support your right to voice an opinion even if we don’t totally agree. Free speech is not conditional for moments when somebody agrees with you.”
Previous iterations of the UMaine College Republicans were more focused on involving college students in state politics, said Matt Gagnon, who led the group in 1999 and through the 2000 presidential election and today leads the conservative advocacy group the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
“When I was running it, it was about volunteering and civic participation in Augusta,” he said. “We didn’t bring any speakers, controversial or otherwise.”
The relationship between the university and the UMaine College Republicans has declined in the past year, according to Oliver. But Gagnon, also a Bangor Daily News columnist, said there’s always been some level of friction between academia and conservative political groups.
The university supports individual students in the group and their right to free speech, and it has been working to find a new adviser for the club, Dana said.
But as long as the student government doesn’t recognize the group, it cannot access allotted funding, university services or staff support at events. It also cannot use “UMaine” in its club name.
“We’ve asked them to stop using their name,” Dana said. “We would ask that they respect that.”
Childs objected to that request, but the College Republicans have blocked out their organization’s name with the word “Censored” in advertising for the rescheduled Malkin event and in the club logo on their Facebook page.
“That’s the name of our organization. That’s been our name for decades,” Childs said. “They decided to enforce this rule now.”