EXCLUSIVE: Students say administrators shut down free speech petition table

Conservative students at Transylvania University say they were asked by administrators to stop tabling.

The students' accounts are backed up with audio recordings obtained exclusively by Campus Reform.

Conservative students at a Kentucky college say administrators forced them to stop tabling and move to a different area.

Audio recordings obtained exclusively by Campus Reform capture the conversations between student members of Transylvania University’s Young Americans for Freedom group and two of that school’s administrators. YAF member Alex Drury spoke exclusively with Campus Reform Friday about his interactions with Transylvania University Vice President for Enrollment and Student Life Holly Sheilley and Dean of Students Michael Covert. Two more individuals who were there corroborated Drury’s account in statements to Campus Reform

As heard in the audio recordings, Drury alleges that although he, Jacob Burnam, and Lucas Reed were shut down within minutes, the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter tabled in the same area the day before for more than an hour.

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Both Drury and Burnam are Transylvania University students, while Reed is not. Drury told Campus Reform that Reed was letting the group use his whiteboard as a free speech board and happened to still be there when the administrators approached. 

”I emailed the first time I tabled and I was like, ‘hey do I need to fill out any forms or anything’ and they’re like, ‘no, just grab a table and set up,” one of the YDSA students who tabled Wednesday told Drury, according to an audio recording obtained by Campus Reform. “And then this time, I didn’t even email anyone. I just found a table and set up.” 

On Thursday, as Drury, Burnam, and Reed were there tabling, trying to get students to sign a petition in support of the university adopting the Chicago Statement, upheld as the golden standard by many free speech activists, Sheilly approached them and told them to leave.

”I really need y’all to pick up your stuff and go through the process,” Sheilly told the students, according to the audio recording. 

When the three men asked Sheilly what the punishment would be for not leaving the area, the vice president for enrollment and student life said, “I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not the dean of students.” Drury, Burnam, and Reed then asked Sheilly about why the YDSA students were allowed to table there the day before for over an hour without anyone asking them to leave. 

”I don’t know. I wasn’t here yesterday. I didn’t pass by here, I don’t guess. I mean, I’m telling you the truth. I didn’t see them. [Dean of Students] Covert says he didn’t see them,” Sheilly said. 

When Drury pointed out that there were faculty members who passed by the YDSA table the day before, Sheilly said, “I don’t expect faculty -- I would hope that someone would call me...I would expect faculty to think that you’d had the conversation [for approval].”

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Covert later approached the three conservatives tabling, who also asked him why faculty members didn’t say anything to the YDSA members.

”In the same way that I’m not responsible for academic policies...they [faculty] have some awareness but they’re not responsible for knowing what the student life policies are,” Covert said. 

After further discussing the issue with Covert for several minutes, the dean of students agreed to allow the conservatives to table, as long as they moved to the free speech zone: “But I’m asking...for you to do it in the free speech area.” Drury asked what would happen if they didn’t move.

”I can’t say what it will be but if people continue to not follow policy and continue to not do things, then does it become more restrictive? I don’t know,” Covert replied. 


Drury and Burnam released a video response to the incident, lambasting the college over its “free speech zone.”

”Currently on this campus, free speech is restricted to a small free speech zone in the middle of campus,” Burnam says in the video, “intentionally obstructed by tables and chairs placed there by the administration. Don’t be misled by the name ‘free speech zone.’ We even have to register before using it.” 

”The incorporation of a free speech zone implies that we’re just a bunch of snowflakes,” Burnam adds. “No, we conservative and liberal students can hold our own. We are not snowflakes.”

At another point in the video, Drury says the incident that occurred Thursday and the state of free speech on campus at Transylvania University “creates a hostile environment to students’ free speech rights, which can lead to not only misapplication, but is completely insulting to our intellectual fortitude and integrity.”

”Transylvania endorses free speech and the sharing of ideas and we hold very highly the right of freedom of expression,” Transylvania Vice President for Marketing and Communications Megan Moloney told Campus Reform Friday.

The incident occurred just weeks after Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed a bill into law banning free speech zones on public college campuses. But the legislation will not apply to Transylvania University, which is a private institution. 

Asked whether Transylvania agrees with the intended purpose of the campus free speech legislation, Moloney said the university “endorses free speech and the sharing of ideas,” adding that “we review our policies regularly, generally during the summer when we as an administration have a little bit more time to review these.”

After the initial publication of this article, Moloney told Campus Reform, “we have worked closely with Alex, Jacob and their organization to facilitate their activities and events on campus this year. All of their requested events have been approved with the exception of one date with a scheduling conflict, which was rescheduled. I think it’s important to include that as context.”

Campus Reform reached out to each of the two YDSA students, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

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