University Sanctions Students in Rodrigues Free Speech Altercation


By Jake Shore


The university’s investigation into a “free-speech exercise” at Rodrigue’s Coffee Shop last December reached its conclusion earlier this month, resulting in conduct sanctions for at least three students involved.

Last year’s incident, where several members of College Republicans went into Rodrigue’s wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats and other apparel trying to provoke a confrontation, prompted national media to take notice. Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J., president of the university thereafter released a statement and the university opened an investigation.

In a recent interview with The Fordham Ram, McShane said he did not consider the incident at the coffee shop a demonstration. On campus demonstrations require administrative approval 48 hours in advance. No members involved in the incident at Rodrigue’s applied for approval.

“I never thought of what happened at Rodrigue’s as a demonstration,” said McShane.

Following the incident last year, university investigators interviewed students featured in a viral video where Rodrigue’s co-president Kristal Ho, FCRH ’18, asked members of College Republicans to leave for violating the Coffee Shop’s “Safer Space” policy.

Once the conduct process completed, Kristal Ho received sanctions against her along with at least two members of College Republicans at the time.

In a tweet, Ho posted the sanctions she received for two violations of the university’s Code of Conduct, including “Disorderly Conduct” and “engaging in or inciting others to engage in conduct…which prevents or limits the free expression of the ideas of others.”

Ho did not respond to requests for comment.

Former member of College Republicans Sebastian Balasov, GSB ’18, also received sanctions and a punishment from the university. Balasov has a “suspension of privileges” from the university, which prevents him from going to Rodrigue’s or events organized by them. He also has a “contact restriction” from Kristal Ho, which requires he stay away from her, according to an email.  

Balasov said he received a sanction for recording and disseminating the video of the altercation occurring between Ho and members of College Republicans.

The university’s Code of Conduct forbids “publication, distribution, or posting of recordings of members of the Fordham University community and/or any persons on Fordham University property online or via social media,” unless consent is given by all parties involved.

Balasov said he did not release the video to Campus Reform, the conservative outlet to first post the video.

Campus Reform bills itself as an outlet that “exposes the liberal bias and abuse against conservatives on America’s colleges and universities.” The writer who first published the Campus Reform video and article on the Rodrigue’s incident declined to reveal who sent her the video.

Both Balasov and Ho have to write apology letters regarding their roles in the incident.

Additionally, Jacob Floam, FCRH ’20, and a member of College Republicans, was pictured in the video and also received sanctions from the university for his role in the incident. Floam declined to be interview by The Fordham Ram on his sanctions, but he said they do not affect his “standing as a Fordham student” and that nothing will appear on his record.

The event was portrayed on national media outlets as a meeting over coffee turned ugly. The Ram reported in December that some members of College Republicans planned the confrontation as an exercise in free speech.

Another member of College Republicans, Aaron Spring, GSB ’19, appeared on three separate Fox News segments and spoke to the New York Post after the altercation, defending the position of the College Republicans involved.

Spring, who was named as a “ Correspondent” on all three Fox News broadcasts, denied sending the video to Campus Reform.  He also said he received no sanctions.

Michael Esposito, FCRH ’19, and member of College Republicans, can be seen in the video arguing with Ho over whether she has the authority to force those in MAGA hats to leave the premises. Esposito also said he did not receive any sanctions for his role in the altercation.

Esposito said that since the video went viral, which he said he did not know was being recorded at the time, he was forced to delete his “political views Twitter” because of “death threats” he received. Esposito also said his professors now treat him differently since he was featured in the video.

While being investigated for the altercation at Rodrigue’s, two members of College Republicans at the time pictured in the video were questioned by university investigators about the circumstances behind a circulating photo of them online posing with an alt-right flag.

Christopher Rodgers, Rose Hill dean of students, had previously declined to comment on the steps taken with students affiliated with both the Rodrigue’s incident and the alt-right flag photo following the investigation’s conclusion. He declined to comment on the findings of the investigation into the Rodrigue’s incident.

Though the incident happened last year during the time when students take their finals, the investigation did not wrap up until March of the following year.

“The fact that it happened at the end of the term during finals led to a slowing down of the disciplinary process, which was a frustration for everyone,” said McShane, in an interview last week. “I wanted this addressed, taken seriously, taken to heart, and taken care of so that students and the whole university community didn’t live in a sense of uncertainty.”

After the media coverage of the Rodrigue’s altercation, McShane sent out a university-wide statement last December. He said there is no campus safe space policy and that the Fordham community should do better in respectfully expressing free speech.

“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 in a statement.

At a Student Life Council meeting last week, Dean Rodgers confirmed that no safe space policy seems to exist in the club charters of either Campus Activities Board or United Student Government. Rodgers opened the door to future discussions about a safe space policy but reaffirmed the university’s position on the Rodrigues incident.

“The safe space policy on this campus . . . simply can’t verge into removing people from university spaces based on viewpoint,” said Rodgers.