University Investigating Incident at Rodrigue’s Coffee House

By Aislinn Keely

The university is investigating an incident that occurred in Rodrigue’s Coffee House on Thursday afternoon between a group of men, some from Fordham College Republicans, and members of Rodrigue’s Club, according to Bob Howe, director of communications for the university.

“There is no university safe space policy, nor one that excludes any members of the Fordham community from any public spaces on the basis of their political views,” said Howe in a statement provided to The Fordham Ram. “Fordham is a community that values diverse opinions, and in which students should disagree with one another in a civil fashion.”

Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, addressed the incident and subsequent media coverage in a statement sent to the Fordham community on Tuesday, Dec. 12. McShane said he wanted to clarify that the university does not have a safe space policy or any policy that excludes members of the Fordham community from any public space on campus on the basis of their political views.

“Having said that, I must say that I believe that Fordham itself should be a safe space—safe in the sense that it is and must remain a place where all of the members of the University community are free to share their opinions, and to have those opinions respectfully tested by their peers,” said McShane.

Members of College Republicans planned a “free speech exercise” in Rodrigue’s Coffee House, where they wore Make America Great Again (MAGA) apparel and other attire featuring the American flag, according to Sebastian Balasov, GSB ’18, president of College Republicans.

“We didn’t wear anything particularly offensive, we just had MAGA hats, and I guess that’s what was the point of contention,” said Balasov.

Balasov and a number of other people, some members of College Republicans, were asked to leave by co-president of Rodrigue’s Coffee House, Kristal Ho, FCRH ’18, on the basis of the coffee house’s Safer Space policy.

“I asked them to take their hats off and leave and they tried to antagonize me,” said Ho.

“I understand if they were just trying to get coffee but obviously that wasn’t it, it was completely premeditated.”

Aaron Spring, a member of College Republicans, appeared on the Fox News program “The Story With Martha MacCullum.” During the show, MacCallum asked Spring if the incident was intended to provoke a conversation. “No, of course not, we were just a group of friends getting coffee,” said Spring during the interview.

Balasov said the exercise was planned. The idea of getting coffee at Rodrigue’s while dressed in MAGA and American flag gear was mentioned to a group in the moments after the College Republicans’ meeting on Nov. 30 was adjourned, according to Balasov.

Spring declined to comment.

Balasov said he expected some attention, but not the subsequent reaction. “It was a 50/50, it could’ve happen, I was suspecting more of the glares and snares. I didn’t expect someone to actually kick us out,” said Balasov.

Those wearing MAGA gear were not asked to leave based on their political affiliations, according to Brad Passarelli, a co-president of Rodrigues.

“The group that was asked to leave on December 7th was not asked to leave because of their political views or their clothing- they were, in fact, served coffee and treated as regular customers. However, when these visitors decided to create a scene that was clearly designed to provoke under the guise of political discourse, their disruption and disrespect for our space could not be ignored,” said Passarelli.

Balasov said that his members were not disruptive.

“My members were being very respectful, people were talking to us, we were discussing gun control at one point. We weren’t raising our voices, we were having respectful dialogue, and I think isn’t that what college is about?” said Balasov.

A video has circulated of the incident showing Ho and Michael Esposito, FCRH ’19, a member of College Republicans, in a confrontation surrounded by other people wearing MAGA gear and American flag attire. “I don’t want people like you supporting this club. I’m giving you 5 minutes,” Ho said during the confrontation.

Fritz Ortman, a member of Rodrigues who worked the shift during the incident, said that roughly  eight people in MAGA gear stood around the table near the front counter, blocking service. “Because of this, they were blocking the front counter, making it difficult to serve people. The group remained around the table blocking service, with 8 of them standing,” he said.

Ortman also said that the people sitting nearest to those in the MAGA gear were “visibly uncomfortable,” and all the customers “were basically watching them.”

“Their unusual presence in the space made customers and members feel uncomfortable, as the customers and members could sense that they were not in Rodrigue’s to enjoy coffee or study, but to provoke,” said Ortman.

The university launched the investigation “to better understand what happened and what can be learned from the altercation,” according to McShane’s statement. “Whether any students are subject to the conduct process will depend on the outcome of the investigation,” said McShane.

Hundreds of people have left racist and derogatory comments on Rodrigue’s Coffee House Facebook page and other websites.

“In the aftermath of Spring’s televised appearance, Rodrigue’s has been met with some of the most vile and offensive messages I have ever seen, and the vast majority of them have been directed at my co-president, who as a woman of color has been traumatized by an unending assault of racial slurs and bigotry online over the past few days,” said Passarelli.

“The Fordham College Republicans disavow all online harassment directed towards members of Rodrigues,” said Balasov.

McShane addressed the “hateful rhetoric” aimed at both sides in his statement. “I have heard and seen hateful rhetoric aimed at both sides in this dispute, including rhetoric from members of the Fordham community. This is wrong,” said McShane.

Spring acted separately from College Republicans when appearing on the show, according to Balasov. Balasov said he did not know how the video of the incident was leaked to Campus Reform and that College Republicans were not involved in the booking of the Fox segment.

Christopher Rodgers, dean of students, said that the university’s response includes discussion on how this situation might have been handled “more appropriately by everyone involved.”

“The student organizations involved will be working with their advisers in the Office for Student Involvement in the hopes of clarifying these important principles,” said Rodgers.