"We support free speech; let teachers teach!" chanted at least a hundred Orange Coast College (OCC) students at the school's free-speech zone in December 2016. They stood with signs in support of Olga Perez Stable Cox, a human-sexuality professor who was in hiding at the time because of death threats. They came from around the world starting the day after the presidential election, when she stated in her class that voting for Donald Trump was "an act of terrorism."
On the other side of the grassy quad stood freshman Caleb O'Neil. Blond and fit, with a strong jaw and a helmet of hair that gave him the look of a Kennedy cousin, he held his own sign: "Be Careful What You Wish For, Olga! We're Standing Up!" He had secretly recorded Cox on his cellphone, then shared the video with OCC's College Republicans chapter. The club put it up on YouTube, and it quickly went viral—and led to the school suspending O'Neil. Right-wingers rallied around him nationwide; locally, young conservatives sprung into action.
More than 20 fellow College Republicans joined O'Neil for the protest. Standing with them were older men in suits, including *
Republican Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach) and Shawn Steel, the former chairman of the California Republican Party and husband to Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel.
"I don't think the students [Cox supporters] understand the difference between academic freedom and free speech," remarked College Republicans founder Joshua Recalde-Martinez as he looked on. The issue was personal to him: A petition circulating around campus asked OCC to remove the sophomore as club president for his "partisan" and "out of line" behavior, which included appearing on FOX News to slam Cox and the school. (He'd later voluntarily step down to become treasurer.)
Nothing eventful happened on either side during the rally. But in just showing up to protest, OC's various conservative student groups, from College Republicans to Young Americans for Freedom and more, can claim victory. In retreat for nearly 20 years as OC became more liberal and the California GOP cratered, the rise of Trump has inspired millennial conservatives to come out on campus.
Their actions get national coverage, thanks to smart social media and an alt-right press who claim a liberal conspiracy in higher education and are thrilled undergrads are standing up to it. College Republicans were there during the March 25 #MAGAMarch at Bolsa Chica State Beach, and graduates jeered during Cal State Fullerton's commencement, when Univision anchor María Elena Salinas spoke in Spanish and trashed Trump. Last September, Young Americans for Freedom members caught Saddleback College history professor Margot Lovett removing "9/11 Never Forget" posters with images of the Twin Towers from a wall. Former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at UC Irvine last June and October, which led to protests against him, sanctions against the College Republicans that the university eventually had to walk back, and a permanent ban on Yiannopoulos speaking there. And in February, a "No Ban, No Wall" protest against Trump's immigration policies at Cal State Fullerton ended in a physical altercation between anthropology professor Eric Canin and a CSUF Republicans member, for which the instructor was suspended.
"I'm probably the most hated person on campus. . . . I love it," says Ariana Rowlands, a UCI senior who's already a GOP force at just 20 years old. The president of UCI's College Republicans has more than 31,000 followers on Twitter, on which she does everything from wittily debate tweeters to post pictures of herself in a star-spangled bikini. She's a contributor to Breitbart and Red Alert Politics, a youth website sponsored by billionaire Philip Anschutz. Last year, the David Horowitz Freedom Center invited her to speak, introducing her as "the future of conservative activism."
"[UCI student government leaders] bring up me or the College Republicans . . . 'Oh those bigots! We should force them to do this; we should force them to do that,'" Rowlands says in a mocking tone. "Every time they do that, it just makes us stronger and gives us another opportunity to say, 'Hey, this is why the Left is bad.'"
But as Rowlands and her fellow travelers become rising stars in their movement, their progressive peers express concern. "It's just like [College Republicans] can intimidate, and they can troll, and they're going to do whatever they want until something very bad happens," says an anonymous OCC student who feels college administrators haven't done enough to protect students from conservatives on campus.
"It makes me really nervous because it's not just isolated, it's not just going on here," says another OCC student with a concerned look on her face. "I don't trust them."
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During the OC GOP's golden era, its youth wing had a consistent presence on all county campuses. During the 1980s, College Republicans at Santa Ana College (then known as Rancho Santiago College) hosted Nicaraguan exiles opposed to the Sandinistas; the Chapman University branch welcomed Oliver North when he spoke there in 1993. The movement continually brought new blood to the local GOP, and many became elected officials themselves. Longtime OC GOP head Tom Fuentes was a College Republican at Chapman; other GOP bigwigs such as Scott Baugh and Van Tran were involved in Young Americans for Freedom.
The trend continued somewhat into the 2000s, such as when UCI's College Republicans held a bake sale in 2004 mocking affirmative action, or when the same chapter displayed controversial cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad in 2006; both actions made national news. But after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, College Republicans clubs across the county mostly faded away as millennials turned to the Left.
That started to change thanks largely to Rowlands, a Ladera Ranch native and child of immigrants (a father from Wales, and a Mexican mother). UCI's College Republicans are the merry pranksters of the local college political scene, relishing any opportunity to troll liberals. They passed out baby pacifiers to protesters before Yiannopoulos' speech to give them a "safe space" and wore T-shirts that read, "Can We Take a Joke?" while inviting people on campus to write on their "free speech board."
Campus progressives fear them so much that, earlier this year, a rumor spread that the College Republicans were going to build a fake border wall on campus. Faculty and activists planned protests, even though Rowlands said they weren't actually planning on doing something like that.
But Rowlands is unapologetic about the "loud and out-there activism" of her club. The College Republicans represent a silent minority of students who are "very appreciative that there's somebody out there voicing their beliefs and not really caring about the Leftists that call them names or try to shut them down," she says.
"In the past year, we've managed to definitely influence the temperature on this campus a lot," she continues. "We're just trying to show other young people that there is another way of thinking, that it makes a lot of sense and that we're actually more tolerant of other ideas. [We're not] saying, 'You have to be this one way, or you're a horrible person,' like the Left is. That's what the Left has become—they've somehow masqueraded intolerance as tolerance."
The former business major, now political science major hopes to continue to dismantle the "liberal monopoly on academia" in her current run for state chair of the California College Republicans (CCR). She has even assembled a team called Rebuild CCR because she thinks the current organization is too focused on national politics instead of changing campus culture. On her slate is current OCC College Republicans president Vincent Wetzel, a self-proclaimed gay Hispanic Republican.
With support from the Republican Party of Orange County, the California Federation of Republican Women and the Lincoln Club of Orange County, Rowlands boasts that Rebuild CCR is "going to try to change the state so that all the College Republican chapters can be like the ones in Orange County."
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Chris Boyle says Cal State Fullerton's chapter of College Republicans, CSUF Republicans, has grown to about 40 members since he restarted the chapter last semester after transferring from Orange Coast College, where he was a member. "At times, we've been able to work with groups like the College Dems to co-host debate-watch parties and other bipartisan events," he says. "But we also had an incident where a professor physically assaulted one of our students during a demonstration."
The fracas made national news, but some Cal State Fullerton students maintain it was all a setup. Boyle scoffs at the notion. "When I go out here, it isn't to sensationalize; it's to recruit conservatives and get them involved," the College Republicans president says. "Crying wolf would be counterproductive. . . . It would make us look unprofessional and unreliable, and that's not something that I would be willing to [do to] lessen my [organization's] standing."
CSUF Republicans have since challenged university president Mildred Garcia for not personally and publicly addressing the altercation. "I think [the school's] communications director came out and said they affirm all free speech, but she said it on Twitter," Boyle says. That's a stark contrast to how Garcia responded to President Trump's victory and immigration policies, he adds: "The president of our university issued emails that went into the personal email boxes of every student on campus, showing them, you know, that they'd be protected against Trump and all this stuff."
Last month, CSUF Republicans were upset again when their resolution to create a free-speech education campaign on campus was denied by the student government. According to a press release from the group, it was the fault of the liberal-leaning Students for Quality Education (SQE), who successfully argued against the resolution, claiming "time constraints, unforeseeable ramifications and lack of free speech violations on campus as reasons for voting against the bill."
Boyle says the California Faculty Association and SQE have became "very antagonistic" toward them since the Canin incident. But conservative Titans have fought back. A fake "Real SQE" Instagram profile recently surfaced and posted a parody flyer promoting a "Students for Quesadillas and Enchiladas" Cinco de Mayo fundraising event at an on-campus Baja Fresh. The flyer also stated that any time someone proclaimed Trump's infamous quote, "I love the Hispanics," 10 percent of the purchase would go to "Real SQE."
Cal State Fullerton's Academic Senate quickly passed a resolution condemning the flyer as "clearly designed for the racial mockery of Latinx students and groups." Boyle—who says that CSUF Republicans members run the "Real SQE" account but that it isn't a club-sanctioned effort—pushed back. "It would be absurd for [CSUF Republicans] to be a racist organization," he told the university's student newspaper Daily Titan. "Half of my executive board is Latino."
Like Rowlands, Boyle says established local conservatives such as longtime Cal State Fullerton donor and alumnus Steve Mihaylo (after whom the university's Mihaylo College of Business and Economics is named) have expressed their support for CSUF Republicans. Mihaylo recently drew heat after he trashed a Cal State Fullerton student on Twitter by asking him if he "ever considered getting a job" to pay off his student debt; the student replied by saying he already works two jobs on campus.
"[Mihaylo is] a great friend of the club: He's come to speak to us; he's actually invited us onto his boat a couple times—he's a really great guy," Boyle says. "If I worked for him as a PR guy, I probably wouldn't have recommended him doing what he did. But he's a really good guy, and he comes from a good place, and he's done a lot to help this organization."
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"I've heard from people that whenever Trump is brought up, people drop [their] poli-sci classes," says an OCC student who asked for anonymity. "I've had people say they're not going back to OCC because of what happened."
College Republicans insist they're the oppressed minority on college campuses across Orange County and that progressives make student life intolerable for conservatives. But a different story emerges from progressive students and faculty, who've been caught off-guard by the resurgent Right.
At OCC, students from organizations such as the Feminist, Pride and Planned Parenthood clubs received unsolicited visits to their meetings by College Republicans in February. When club leaders and advisers asked them to leave, the GOPers refused. They cited California public forum rights and said they were merely trying to foster healthier relationships between opposing clubs on campus. Liberal club members believe such unannounced drop-ins were petty tactics to antagonize, intimidate and distract them. In one meeting the Weekly attended, Wetzel showed up, then left and walked away with an older man in a suit. (A club leader told the Weekly two students left a meeting crying because they were upset by the College Republicans' refusal to leave.)
"Milo Yiannopoulos wrote an article on his blog in support of the Republican Club here, and that really scares me because they're connected to people who are known to put private, sensitive information out there for people to get doxed," says an OCC student who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from College Republicans.
"There's a degree to which both sides have misbehaved," adds an anonymous OCC faculty member. "There's this weird group dynamic going on in the College Republicans, and they've been emboldened for whatever reason and want to antagonize people. For me, it's even simpler than sort of intersectional feminism and identity politics; it's just, 'Didn't you learn not to behave like that in the fifth grade?'"
This faculty member also questions whether freedom of association rights are still applicable on public college campuses when GOPers employ such tactics. "The definition of a club in the club handbook is that you are like-minded individuals, right? And thus [you] can exclude non-believers. I've put that question out to both administration and a legal group, and I haven't yet heard a response."
The unannounced visits began in February, according to OCC progressives, while O'Neil celebrated his victorious appeal against the Coast Community College District Board of Trustees. They had originally decided to punish him with a two-semester suspension and force him to issue a personal apology to Cox and write a three-page essay about his actions. He defended his motives in a previous press conference. "I pulled my phone out because I was honestly scared that I would have repercussions with my grades because she knew I was a Trump supporter," says O'Neil, who ended up getting an A in Cox's course.
"You can have someone . . . like Caleb, who says he's afraid of people using words because words can be violent and words can be unsafe, and at the same time be at a rally two months back and yell at younger people than him that 'Feminism is cancer'—[to] people who are probably really scared to be in that crowd right now," says another anonymous OCC student, referring to a video taken last year at a Trump rally at the Orange County Fairgrounds across the street from OCC that was publically posted on Instagram. The school's student newspaper, The Coast Report, reported that the young man wearing a MAGA hat in the video was O'Neil. "He doesn't care about freedom of speech; he just cares about being able to say what he wants to say and telling people to shut up when he wants them to."
In the weeks after the OCC College Republicans released the video, a student says faculty members with "ethnic-sounding" last names received threatening emails that warned them to stop supporting a "white genocide." That led to a student writing to OCC president Dennis Harkins, begging for support.
"Without a firm action taken to prevent racism, homophobia and xenophobia [manifesting in actions, language and ideas] by campus administration, these attacks lay in your hands," read an email. "Any silence on this matter will not be interpreted as neutrality; silence is allowance, it is compliance."
Harkins didn't reply.
"[OCC's College Republicans] have such wealthy lawyers they have the Republican Party funding them," says yet another anonymous faculty member. "They're being groomed and coached, and what they're doing is waiting for someone to kick them out. They're testing the college's policies so they can sue the college for being biased toward conservative students.
"Basically," the faculty member concluded, "the college got sucker-punched by them."
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Adult OC conservatives have looked on with pride at their young wards and have offered to help when needed. KABC-AM 790 morning host John Phillips wrote for the Orange County Register's opinion pages that "OCC doesn't deserve the support or confidence of the taxpayers who fund its indoctrination camp." Recalde-Martinez has worked for State Assemblymember Matt Harper (himself a former president of Orange Coast's College Republicans) and Supervisor Andrew Do, and now works for Michelle Steele as an executive aide. Last December, California OC GOP royalty such as chairman Fred Whitaker and nine California elected leaders, including state senators Janet Nguyen and John Moorlach, sent a letter to Harkins discouraging disciplinary action against O'Neil.
"The College Republicans need support in their effort to ensure that conservative students receive equal treatment on campus and have the ability to report discrimination they experience," Whitaker later said in an April 3 press release. "As a former California College Republican state chair, I know personally what it's like to defend free speech on campus and protect the rights of conservative students."
Later that month, Moorlach introduced a bill that aimed to provide whistleblower safeguards to college students. The proposed legislation sought to allow students to record in a community college classroom without an instructor's permission if the students "reasonably believed" they were capturing a violation of local, state or federal laws. The legislation died in the committee because of a lack of support in the super-majority Democratic California Senate. Unions representing teachers and faculty claimed the bill would allow students to record as a weapon against teachers they simply don't like or agree with.
The climate at OCC remains fraught. Signs reading, "Video and/or Audio Recording Without Instructor Permission IS PROHIBITED" are now posted in every classroom. Recalde-Martinez submitted several public-records requests looking for any mention of the "Orange Coast College Republican Club" to uncover any possible administrative biases; soon after, on-campus graffiti saying, "Doxx Joshua Martinez OCC Young Republicans = Fascists" and, "Support your local antifa" stickers were found on five buildings, along with a knife laying on the grass. In March, OCC student Robert McDougal was arrested on vandalism and hate-crime charges for carving a swastika and "fuck the nigger" on the hood of a campus-safety vehicle. And a "Black Lives Matter" art installation was mysteriously removed from the Arts Center building around that time.
The OCC Republicans condemned the latter two events on its Facebook page. But then Cox was given a Faculty of the Year award in March by the Orange Coast College Professional Development Committee, which consists of faculty members, classified staff and past recipients of the award. The college GOP soon posted a meme on its Facebook page with a photo of Cox that read, "CALLS TRUMP'S ELECTION AN ACT OF TERROR/WINS TEACHER OF THE YEAR." That led to a contentious April 5 Coast Community College District (CCCD) Board of Trustees meeting, at which Recalde-Martinez, Rowlands and others demanded that Cox's award be rescinded.
If the December rally were heated but civil, the CCCD meeting showed how much worse relations had become between progressives and conservatives at OCC. Students who supported Cox were now in the minority. Several audience members in patriotic garb, long past their college days, held signs reading, "REVOKE OLGA'S AWARD."
A facilitator at the Board of Trustees meeting had to remind audience members to compose themselves and refrain from interrupting speakers. When any speaker voiced opposition to the College Republicans, jeers burst from the crowd. But when the College Republicans spoke, none was interrupted by the audience.
"The faculty has decided to make Olga Perez 'un' Stable Cox Faculty Member of the Year; this is completely inexcusable," said Wetzel. He then called out Rob Schneiderman, president of the Coast Federation of Educators and consistent Cox supporter, for showing his "disreputable face here today" and warned his club will do everything to stop him from beating Congresswoman Mimi Walters in 2018.
Student Elias Altamirano voiced his support of Cox. "Despite the threats to her life, the constant mockery and insults posted in the [College Republicans] club's Facebook page by people who have no idea who she is," he began, "Professor Cox had the admirable courage to not let a few students ruin her commitment to this institution, her dedication to continue teaching and her passion for helping hundreds of students like she has done for over 30 years."
He then triggered conservatives when he said, "Ignorance is the root of all evil, and the fact that there are many here today attacking a person they have never met is extremely tragic."
"We met her on the video!" interrupted a woman, which sparked laughs and applause by College Republicans supporters in the audience.
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"You may not do that again," the facilitator snapped to the woman. "If you do you'll have to leave."
Altamirano continued, "I love this school, and the faculty has been nothing but a great support to me. I won't let someone's [craving] for attention and a political platform ruin this institution I consider home."
This time, the conservatives in the crowd remained silent.
*Editor's note: The OC Weekly originally reported that Matt Harper was at the counterprotest at OCC in December 2016 described in the beginning of this story; he was not. The Weekly apologizes for confusing Harper with another hatted dweeb.