Conservative charge against Wake sparks anti-trans, racist abuse of students

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Wake Forest University student Ryan Wolfe appeared on "Tucker Carlson Tonight" on Feb. 28. (screenshot)

A conservative publication claims that Wake Forest University failed to enforce its anti-bias policy, and the far-right internet rains down hatred on LGBTQ and students of color.

Wake Forest University found itself at the center of the national culture wars over the course of about 72 hours last week when a conservative student polemic against diversity received a steroid boost from Fox News. The viral story ricocheted around the far-right reaches of the internet, and boomeranged back in the form of vicious trolling against trans and non-white students.

The Wake Forest Review — which self-consciously places itself in the tradition of the Dartmouth Review and other independent, conservative campus publications — launched in 2016. It claims Brooke Burr, the wife of US Sen. Richard Burr, and Todd Poole, an aide to US Rep. Ted Budd, as members of its board of directors. In its second year of publication, the Review won Best New Media Award at the 2017 Collegiate Network Conference. The Review is a member publication in the Collegiate Network.

Chaired by Alfred S. Regnery, a conservative publisher and former Justice Department appointee during the Reagan administration, the Collegiate Network “supports independent student newspapers, magazines and journals that serve to focus public awareness on the politicization of American college and university classrooms, curricula, student life, and the resulting decline of educational standards,” according to its most recent 990 filing with the IRS. “The CN also supports paid summer internships and postgraduate, yearlong fellowships at prominent media outlets to promising student journalists committed to the principles of liberty.”

In its short history, the Review has already demonstrated marked influence in conservative circles and the right-wing media. Its Twitter feed documents newsroom visits from conservative luminaries like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and US Rep. Mark Meadows, and its stories have been cited by outlets like Breitbart, the Daily Caller, the Weekly Standard and the far-right website InfoWars. But no story has created quite the same impact as a Feb. 26 piece by Editor-in-Chief Anthony Palumbo entitled, “Wake Forest Declines to Enforce Harassment Policies for Conservative Student.” The story earned its subject, Ryan Wolfe — who also happens to be the Review’s digital director — a slot on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Feb. 28.

The story claims that Wake Forest University failed to enforce its anti-bias policies on Wolfe’s behalf because he is white. The case concerns Wolfe’s October 2016 complaint against six students who disparaged him with food-related insults that alluded to his status as a white person during the 2016 presidential campaign. During a panel on the future of the Republican Party at a campus event that included Wolfe and three other white students, student Char Van Schenk commented on Facebook with a photo of four saltine crackers, writing, “Loving the lineup.” The theme continued when another student handed Wolfe a box of saltine crackers after the event, and again when yet another student photoshopped Wolfe’s face onto a saltine cracker and bandied it about social media. The same student who handed Wolfe the box of crackers also responded on Twitter to Wolfe by tweeting, “If you don’t get your mayonnaise lookin asss [sic] out of my mentions….”

“It was a juvenile move, and we shouldn’t have done it,” Van Schenck, the student who posted the photo of the four saltines, told Triad City Beat.

Wolfe filed a bias complaint against six students, including Van Schenck, who were active with a campus group called Queer Defiance. Wolfe told Carlson that he believes that the university’s rules on harassment and bias incidents “don’t abide by the First Amendment,” but he wanted to make a point that “we’re trying to hold all students to the same standard.”

Van Schenck said it’s simply incorrect to say that the university didn’t enforce the policy. Van Schenck said Wolfe requested that two of the students receive mediation, two receive no-contact orders, and two receive judicial action, which could lead to expulsion. Van Schenck contends that mediation is an appropriate enforcement option under the policy. “We all received mediation,” they said. “It was not found that photoshopping him onto a cracker was causing any psychological violence or justifying any violence towards Ryan Wolfe.”

Wolfe said the university’s Bias Support Committee presented mediation as an option, but never followed through to facilitate a meeting between him and the offenders. He ended up meeting with Van Schenck and Richard Caban Cubero, who was also named in the complaint, but Wolfe said the meeting came at the initiative of Caban Cubero and Van Schenck, not the bias support committee.

Complaints filed through the university’s bias-support system are confidential, so there’s no hard data on how the policy is enforced, but Van Schenck said serious consequences are rare. “As a trans student I’m serially mis-gendered by professors and nothing ever happens,” they said. “I’m subjected to various micro-aggressive tendencies on campus. They really only get enforced through a mediation session.”

Wake Forest University responded following the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” segment with an official statement citing federal privacy laws that maintain confidentiality surrounding administrators’ interactions with students. The statement continued, “We can say that the narrative oversimplifies a complex situation that took place 16 months ago in the heat of a polarizing national election.”

The original Wake Forest Review article did not cite any comparative bias cases to support the argument that Wolfe was treated differently than students of other races, but Carlson was quick to fill in the blanks with supposition.

“I don’t even know what to say,” he told Wolfe during the Feb. 28 broadcast. “I would assume they would have never put up with this if you’d been a different kind of person. This would have been swiftly punished then, right?”

“Right, exactly,” Wolfe responded. “We had a racial-slur incident a couple weeks ago. And let me be clear: I’m not equating what was said by this girl to what was said about me, but that student was asked to leave our school about two days later.”

In the incident in question, a video, posted on social media, reportedly shows a student referring to her African-American resident adviser with a racial slur, saying, “Let me know why I’m hammered again tonight. It’s 2 o’clock… I just called my black RA a fing ner. Let me know. Why did I do that?”

Wake Forest University is a majority-white institution where students of color have experienced periodic racial hostility, including a 2014 party hosted by a white fraternity in which attendees were encouraged to come dressed as black people. The fraternity and university administration said the party was canceled after concerns were raised, but some students told Triad City Beat they saw references on social media indicating the party was held after all.

In an interview with TCB, Wolfe indicated that he’s unmoved by the argument that the harm created by a bias incident is determined by relative power and privilege of the parties involved.

“’Harm’ is a word that’s used quite a bit,” he said. “The key point of this argument is whether they’re going to treat students equally or not. Is how they define ‘harm’ based on identity or individual actions? That’s the key to this whole conflict. Based on my understanding, it seems that they based that more on national political events and the identity of the students involve rather than the actual action.”

Wolfe makes no secret that ultimately he’d prefer that the bias reporting system be dismantled.

“If I had it my way we would just abide by the First Amendment and we wouldn’t have all these rules,” he told Carlson. “If we’re gonna have these strict rules and this bias reporting system, then everybody needs to be held accountable the exact same way.”

By the time Wolfe appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the Review story had already been picked up by the Daily Caller, a right-wing news site co-founded by Carlson. The Daily Caller story was then republished by the far-right InfoWars site hosted by Alex Jones. Drudge Report, the news aggregation website run by Matt Drudge, tweeted the Daily Caller story to its 1.3 million followers. The Daily Caller story quotes Wolfe as saying, “If this is what social justice looks like in practice, we cannot let this ideology infect our judicial system.” The article also stokes anti-immigration sentiment with the digression: “Wake Forest University has previously demonstrated bias by promising to continue granting financial aid to illegal alien students.”

Van Schenck said that since the Review story gained traction, they and other students whose names were published in the article have received “online threats of physical and sexual violence.”

One Twitter user identified as “koos” tweeted a link to the Daily Caller story with the text, “I want to thank this institution. You are helping to recruit new generations of white nationalists with your anti-white rhetoric.”

Koos followed up by tweeting to the student who handed the box of crackers to Wolfe: “Why not simply admit that you aren’t progressive, but a racial nationalist. PS. The NYT was founded by white men and any job should go to those who created this newspaper.” Another tweet to the student, who is black, included an image of US Rep. Maxine Waters photoshopped to make her look like an ape.

Koos also tweeted a YouTube video of Van Schenck making a presentation on the Koran when they were in eighth grade, writing that they are “an obese (white) barrel of crap with wet knickers for Islam. No wonder she [sic] hates white men, no self-respecting white guy would pi## on her [sic] if she [sic] was on fire, let alone shag the foul-looking beast.”

Wolfe said he condemns the bigoted and hateful speech directed at Van Schenck and the other students who were the subject of his complaint.

“The internet has a life of its own,” he said. “I wish people wouldn’t be harassed and have vulgar remarks made at them, but there’s only so many things we can control.”

Caban Cubero said he believes the staff at the Wake Forest Review made a calculated effort to generate a backlash against people of color and LGBTQ people on campus.

“A lot of what they are trying to do is bring far-right individuals into the conversation,” Caban Cubero charged. “They’re trying to normalize the far-right and alt-right. That project has been very obvious from the very beginning.

“The reaction that people have given to this story, the negativity that has come out of it has predominantly come from these far-right individuals,” they continued. “The audience that is using this to justify trans-phobic and racist behavior attacking students, attacking young people goes to show there was a very specific audience that needs to see this. There is a very specific audience that Ryan Wolfe wanted to reach to get back at students at Wake Forest.”

Wolfe rejected the notion that he’s playing up a sense of white victimhood to exploit racial bigotry.

“The point is you can’t really control what the internet says about things,” he said. “We reported the facts. We denounced vulgar, racist, bigoted remarks. I would say the whole part about ‘victimhood’ — what I’ve said from the beginning is that I’d rather have Wake Forest abide by the First Amendment. And I don’t consider myself a victim. Maybe certain people on the internet would like to see it that way, but that’s not my intention.”

Disclosure: The writer was employed as an adjunct instructor by Wake Forest University in the fall 2017 semester.

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