New student organization forces campus leaders to consider freedom of expression, principles of community

The morning light reflects off the limestone of Anderson Hall. In a meeting on Tuesday evening, leadership in Student Governing Association and some representatives from the Sexuality and Gender Alliance spent about an hour discussing a new student organization. (Archive Photo by Evert Nelson | The Collegian)

A new chapter in the college political conversation on campus opened up at the beginning of this semester when a student organization called America First Students announced its conception on social media.

The new organization’s constitution says:

“America First Students is a student organization that believes in putting America and its people first. We stand in defense of Christian values, strong families, closed borders, the American worker, and the preservation of tradition.”

According to a Twitter post, the group met officially for the first time on Jan. 28.

Leadership in Student Governing Association and some representatives from the Sexuality and Gender Alliance spent about an hour on the topic on Tuesday evening, halting the proceedings of the regular student senate Executive Committee.

Some student senators in attendance floated concerns about blowing the presence of the student organization out of proportion.

“We don’t want to cause controversy that doesn’t exist,” Carson Tjelmeland, chair of the Travel Allocations Committee and senior in chemical engineering, said. “We need to be careful in the actions we take in order to not create a monster that doesn’t exist as of now.”

Student body president Jansen Penny, senior in industrial engineering, was one of several student leaders in the room who brought up the balance between First Amendment protections afforded to all students at a public university like Kansas State and the Principles of Community, which outline the expected conduct of all people on campus and establish a framework for a culture of respect.

“My concern would probably be how do we balance two things that are very important to this university,” Penny said.

K-State was recently the only public university in Kansas to receive a green light rating from a free speech watchdog organization.

Lily Colburn, intern coordinator and sophomore in biology and political science, said she thinks this is an opportunity for SGA to more clearly define its vision for campus and determine what student leadership can “be doing better to improve student climate.”

“We as SGA need to think about what’s going to come. I think the ball is slightly in our court,” Colburn said. “What happens when this group inevitably asks for funding? … We as SGA need to be prepared to have that conversation a little bit more organized than we did last year.”

Some of the leadership in the new independent organization are students who were active in the former K-State chapter of Turning Point USA before it disbanded in 2019.

In the spring of 2019, campus protests about Turning Point USA’s invitation to three controversial speakers and SGA’s decision to allocate $3,000 for the event made headlines across the state. A Collegian investigation later revealed that the national organization of Turning Point had tried, unsuccessfully, to infiltrate student body presidential elections.

Tel Wittmer, chair of the On-Campus Allocations Committee and junior in secondary education, said SGA should also consider the thoughts of the students in the organization. In particular, he said there should be consideration for why they felt the need to start the organization in the first place.

“I think it’s a broader question … what are the things that are making students feel the need to move into this far ideological perspective. I don’t know what the answer is to that. … That’s something we need to consider as well,” Wittmer said. “It’s definitely unfortunate to see even this falling back on the university and coming down to us as students and how we’re perceived elsewhere.”

On Feb. 11, the Kansas City Star reported the organization is part of a national pilot program on college campuses to push out a new phase of hyper-conservative student groups.

Leadership from America First Students could not be reached for comment.

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the ex-managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.