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TPUSA Wins Round One Against SUNY Cortland, Discriminatory Policy Remains 

The SUNY Cortland Student Government denied recognition to a TPUSA chapter because it did not like the organization’s beliefs.
Alliance Defending Freedom
A lecturer addresses a college classroom

“We silence voices all the time in this country. That’s the tragedy and also the greatness of democracy.”

These were the words uttered in December 2023 by Erik Bitterbaum, the president of State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. The ominous statement served as President Bitterbaum’s justification for excluding a student group from recognition by the university because of its perceived viewpoint.

Of course, the truth is that viewpoint discrimination is not welcome in American democracy. The First Amendment expressly prohibits it, which is why Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys have taken President Bitterbaum and other SUNY Cortland officials to court.

Establishing a Turning Point USA chapter at SUNY Cortland

In the fall of 2023, Gabriella Delorenzo, Megan Rothmund, and other SUNY Cortland students formed a campus chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA). As an organization, TPUSA desires to spread a message of freedom, free markets, and limited government on campus by hosting speakers and debates, distributing literature, posting flyers, and tabling.

The national TPUSA organization is represented at over 3,500 colleges and high schools across the country, so it is far from unusual for students to establish chapters on their campuses. Gabriella and Megan believe in the organization’s mission, and they wanted to discuss their views about free markets, limited government, and other similar topics on campus.

At SUNY Cortland, student organizations must be officially recognized by the university to enjoy benefits including access to funding from the university’s mandatory student activity fee, the ability to reserve space on campus, and the ability to advertise themselves and their events on campus. President Bitterbaum has given the student government at SUNY Cortland the power to decide which student organizations should be recognized.

SUNY Cortland’s policy regarding group approval did not provide any meaningful criteria to guide the student government’s discretion. In practice, it allowed the student government to deny recognition to groups it does not like for any reason or for no reason at all.

Hostile student senate meeting

According to the policy, a prospective club must go through a rigorous approval process including meeting with the Student Government Association vice president, gathering 40 signatures, and developing a constitution acceptable to the Student Government Review Committee.

As the president and vice president of the TPUSA chapter at SUNY Cortland, Gabriella and Megan completed these steps and received approval from the review committee. So they moved on to the next step outlined in the policy: presenting their plan for the organization to the Student Senate.

During the presentation, many other SUNY Cortland students gathered in the room to oppose the recognition of the TPUSA chapter. In addition, Professor Nikolay Karkov, who teaches and researches socialism, Marxism, and feminist theory, attended the hearing.

After Gabriella and Megan finished their presentation, student senators had the chance to ask questions. Multiple students questioned the chapter’s affiliation with the national TPUSA organization and raised concerns about the organization's beliefs.

One student senator yielded his time to Professor Karkov, who launched into a three-minute tirade against TPUSA. Delivering prepared remarks, Professor Karkov accused the organization of racism and opposition to “queer” people. He received applause and encouragement from the students who gathered to oppose TPUSA with one student even giving him a standing ovation.

The questioning continued for around 100 minutes. Once Gabriella and Megan had finished running this gauntlet, they left the room. The Student Senate voted not to recognize the TPUSA chapter without explanation, as was permitted under SUNY Cortland policy.

President Erik Bitterbaum defends viewpoint discrimination

A few days after the presentation, Gabriella and Megan met with President Bitterbaum. They recounted Professor Karkov’s inappropriate actions during the hearing and explained how the Student Senate had discriminated against TPUSA based on what it perceived the organization’s views to be.

Instead of acknowledging that SUNY Cortland policy had allowed the Student Senate to engage in viewpoint discrimination, President Bitterbaum affirmed the senate’s decision. He told Gabriella and Megan that they had no right to appeal, and he said there was nothing he could do about Professor Karkov’s behavior.

President Bitterbaum discouraged Gabriella and Megan from reapplying for recognition in Spring 2024 because the same people might “show up again” and shoot them down. He also suggested suffering viewpoint discrimination was “the greatness” of our democracy.

Public universities cannot pick and choose which viewpoints are allowed on campus. In February 2024, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging SUNY Cortland’s unconstitutional discrimination and policy.

After ADF filed the lawsuit, the Student Government Association reversed course and approved the TPUSA chapter as an officially recognized club. But the university must still revise its policy to prevent viewpoint discrimination and what happened to Gabriella and Megan from happening again.

Turning Point USA at Suny Cortland v. Cortland College Student Association

  • November 2023: The SUNY Cortland Student Government denied recognition to the campus TPUSA chapter.
  • December 2023: President Erik Bitterbaum confirmed the decision and defended it by saying, “We silence voices all the time in this country.”
  • February 2024: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging the university’s viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutional policy.
  • March 2024: The SUNY Cortland Student Government Association overturned its original vote and approved the TPUSA chapter as an officially recognized club. The lawsuit challenging the policy remains ongoing to protect future clubs.