Fanni Frankl is the opinions editor at The Statesman and Matt Venezia is an assistant opinions editor at The Statesman.
This weekend, Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a nonprofit, right-wing activist group dedicated to empowering conservative voices on campus will sponsor an event on Stony Brook University (SBU) campus. The event is described as “includ[ing] speakers from different backgrounds who are all against mandatory vaccines.” Organized by the TPUSA chapter at Stony Brook, the event will take place on Sept. 12. at 3 p.m. at a location to be determined on Stony Brook’s campus.
Since the group is convening on SBU’s main campus along with hosting speakers, a permit is required to hold this event and as such, the university gave their explicit permission for TPUSA to protest. This is an increasingly questionable decision, especially given the university’s firm adherence to CDC guidelines. The university has mandated resident students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and be tested biweekly, while also requiring commuters to get tested twice a week.
According to a representative from the Stony Brook Chapter of TPUSA, the protesters and speakers of the event will not be asked to show a negative COVID-19 test if they are unvaccinated, which goes against the stated safety requirements from the university.
In allowing this event to occur, Stony Brook University may be putting students and faculty at risk. Given the nature of this event and the ideologies of the guest speakers, it appears that this will be a gathering with few masks and few vaccinated individuals. With the rise of the Delta variant and other more infectious variants, the event could be a hotspot for spreading COVID-19.
Beyond the safety concerns associated with this event, the speakers — chosen by TPUSA headquarters — that are slated to be present are problematic. One such speaker is Ashley St. Clair, an author and provocateur. St. Clair penned an explicitly anti-trans book aimed at children entitled “Elephants Are Not Birds.” She served as TPUSA’s brand ambassador until the organization severed ties with her after pictures surfaced of her having dinner with high-profile white nationalists and anti-semites. Another of the event’s orators is conservative gym owner, Ian Smith, who rose to fame after defying New Jersey legislation related to COVID-19 precautions. Smith was also convicted of vehicular homicide in 2007 in a drunk driving incident.
The university’s decision to accept these speakers, among other strong far-right personalities, is a reflection of the administration’s failure to uphold the values that they staunchly “support.” This event crosses the line of granting first amendment rights and leaps into outright allowing anti-vaccine advocates to speak at the center of a research institution that was a victim of the wrath of COVID-19.
In addition, this decision completely eradicates any action on the part of SBU to make the university more accepting of LGBTQ+ youth and diverse students. By giving people like St. Clair and Smith the platform to speak against medical actions that would save lives, the university is implicitly showcasing their disregard for the safety of the campus community.
This is a failure on the part of the university to protect anything but free speech. On Thursday afternoon, Maurie McInnis, the president of Stony Brook University sent an email to the university entitled “Free Speech and Civility,” confirming this fact. From the timing of this email, it can be inferred that the president is expecting backlash in response to the University’s decision to allow this protest, but seems unwilling to directly address the problematic nature of this event, instead electing to attempt to avoid any potential controversy.
For a university that has such a large focus on public health, LGBTQ+ rights and scientific education, this is a clear misstep. Nearly all professional medical advice and public health data point clearly to mandating vaccines as the most sensible course of action to end this pandemic. This is not to mention the fact that there are already eight distinct vaccinations required to attend high school in New York State, and a similar number to attend a SUNY. All students of state universities attending this protest have already complied with vaccination mandates before.
The question remains: how is this vaccine different from the rest? The Pfizer vaccine has now been fully approved by the FDA, meaning that it is on the same level of acceptance by regulatory organizations as the rest of the mandated vaccines for New York State schools. All COVID-19 vaccines being administered in the U.S. are currently considered to be highly safe. The only major difference between this vaccine and all others is its politicization.
Given that the vaccines have been proven to be safe, and more importantly, a necessary step in saving lives, TPUSA’s argument has no merit. The government should mandate organizations to implement practices that protect their constituents. In fact, it is the primary responsibility of the government to protect the American people, and if they neglect to encourage organizations to mandate the vaccine, they are abandoning their purpose and ignoring scientific reason.
This protest is undermining and disrespecting those who have lost their lives to COVID-19 who could have survived with the vaccine, as well as those who may have lost loved ones or suffered the consequences of the virus in its rampage against New York. Additionally, it is pointing a grand middle finger to the Stony Brook University hospital and staff who suffered through multiple brutal waves of the pandemic, losing countless lives. Ultimately, politics do not belong in discussions of public health. Protecting privacy over the health of our community is not a scientifically or ethically sound message.
Given the potential safety concerns surrounding this event, the provocative nature of the speakers attending and the general lack of respect to the campus community, we believe that it is Stony Brook University’s responsibility to prohibit this event and for the organizers to find another venue.