UHCL The Signal
The official student newspaper of the University of Houston-Clear Lake

Recorded on campus confrontation goes viral

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Assistant Professor of Microbiology Michael LaMontagne approached a table of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) members on campus March 1 and implicated that their organization was “anti-NASA” and funded by Russian money.

The discussion was recorded without LaMontagne’s knowledge and was posted online shortly after to sites such as YouTubeCampus Reform, The Daily Wire and Info Wars. YouTube shows the video has 24,748 views and 349 comments as of March 29.

Turning Point USA is a non-profit organization that aims to identify, educate, train and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets and limited government.

Since its founding in 2012, Turning Point USA has embarked on a mission to build the most organized, active, and powerful conservative grassroots activist network on college campuses across the country. With a presence on more than 1,000 college campuses and high schools across the country, Turning Point USA is the largest and fastest growing youth organization in America.

The controversial conversation has ignited conversations about freedom of speech, freedom of expression and safety on campus.

Krysti Ybarra, psychology major and president of the UHCL chapter of TPUSA, was among the students that were approached by LaMontagne that day.

“Part of Turning Point USA’s mission is to educate college students about the benefits of capitalism and free markets, as well as the necessity of preserving our constitutional rights,” Ybarra said. “That day we had a variety of conversations regarding capitalism and constitutional rights, as well as handing out literature and fliers that went further into depth about these topics.”

Ybarra explained that before the video began recording she was tabling with Greg Neff, a field representative from the Leadership Institution (LI), when LaMontagne approached them.

LI provides training in campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, youth politics and communications. The Institute teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government and the media.

“(LaMontagne) pointed to Turning Point’s ‘big government sucks’ sign and accused us of not supporting the military,” Ybarra said. “I corrected him and said that Turning Point is very much in support of the military, to which he argued that it was illogical of us to support the military but not big government since the military is the largest part of our government.”

In response to LaMontagne’s accusations, the TPUSA members explained their political beliefs. He was told that the military may be the largest part of the government but it is also the most essential as TPUSA believes that the role of government is to protect its citizens and their constitutional rights.

“He also began accusing us of being anti-NASA, to which he was told that the organization only believes that NASA shouldn’t be publicly funded but has no issue with the agency itself,” Ybarra said. “I turned away to speak to some students who were interested in signing up for our mailing list and that’s when I believe he started questioning how Turning Point is funded, then made the accusation that we are funded by the Russian government.”

When asked he if would like to comment on the situation, LaMontagne wrote in an email that he “cannot comment during an open investigation.”

Dean of Students David Rachita, Director of Student Life Andrew Reitberger and Kristy Ybarra are unaware of any ongoing investigation at this time.

“Official student conduct complaints are made by submitting the Student Conduct Incident Form,” said Rachita. “I have not received such a submittal which would initiate an official university process.”

As a result, an important question emerges when talking about political ideologies – where is the line drawn between speaking freely and hostility?

Natalia Marfil, biology major and president of the Social Justice Organization (SJO), addressed her concerns about freedom of expression and safety from her perspective as a student and an activist.

“As a student, my biggest concern is the fact that Dr. LaMontagne does not uphold his responsibility, as a faculty member, to provide a safe environment on campus for students to express themselves,” Marfil said. “The combination of his hostility, the fact that he is a UHCL representative, and the unbalanced power dynamic in-play (professor vs. student) is the perfect way to make students feel unsafe on their own college campus.”

Having an open discussion in a safe zone is at the forefront of Marfil’s ideology of free speech on campus.

“As an advocate for social justice, my personal values may not align with those of Turning Point USA, but I still believe that they deserve a safe space to express themselves,” Marfil said. “Dr. LaMontagne’s passion and frustration resonate with me, but I don’t think that the situation was handled well.

Rachita has not heard of students feeling uncomfortable regarding political alliances on campus, but urges students to contact someone if they feel unsafe.

“In general, all groups regardless of political ideologies or not have the right to share and talk about their platforms,” Rachita said. “Universities must be content-neutral when it comes to supporting all groups’ freedom of expression. The issue comes when a group or a person is advocating actual harm to others. If anyone ever feels such is happening, they should report it to both the UHCL Police Department and the Dean of Students.”

Reitberger reiterates that if any issues arise that students and student organizations should not hesitate to come forward.

“We work with 95 different (student) organizations and assist with many issues that they bring to us,” Reitberger said. “If a student organization needs assistance, they can contact us and we will do what we can to help within the guidelines of university policies and state and federal laws. If an organization has an issue that might need attention from our police department, they shouldn’t hesitate to contact them.”

SJO released a statement regarding the conversation among TPUSA members and LaMontagne:

“The UHCL Social Justice Organization strives to provide, foster, and protect spaces on campus for sociopolitical expression. While the members and officers of SJO may oftentimes have opposing beliefs from those in Turning Point USA, we stand with our fellow students against the unprofessional behavior exhibited by Professor LaMontagne. No student should ever feel unsafe to express their sociopolitical beliefs on campus, especially by a faculty member of the University of Houston-Clear Lake. We believe in the ongoing challenge of ideals, values, and beliefs by university staff and faculty, so long as it is done in a respectful way, in a safe environment, and through the encouragement of critical thinking. SJO believes that a public apology is owed from the professor in question to the UHCL Community and ask that the appropriate actions be taken by the University of Houston-Clear Lake in response to this incident.”