Former statewide Chair of College Republicans Sheridan Nolen posted offensive memes, inciting controversy among party figures.
On March 7, the OU student newspaper, OU Daily, leaked multiple screenshots from the OU College Republicans GroupMe that contained explicitly racist, homophobic and otherwise insensitive content. The president of OU College Republicans, Luke Harshaw, was present in a vast majority of these posts, prompting serious questions surrounding the leadership of the chapter.
Swiftly after the release of these College Republican screenshots, Brandon Swearingen, an accounting and pre-law major at the University of Oklahoma, posted a tweet calling out a member of the TU student body for similar actions: “If you think discrimination is limited to OU College Republicans, you’re wrong. These screenshots feature the statewide Chair of Oklahoma College Republicans [Sheridan Nolen] literally making jokes about killing gays. Luke Harshaw is a statewide officer.”
The screenshots attached to the tweet were a series of jokes made at the expense of racial minorities and the LGBTQ community. Nolen was featured prominently throughout the screenshots. The tweet resulted in the posting of other screenshots from various group chats that were similarly themed. References to Mike Pence killing gay people, racial slurs and poking fun at exaggerated Republican talking points were all present.
According to Swearingen, he received a phone call from Nolen directly after making the post. In addition to confronting him about the tweet, Nolen allegedly offered her resignation from her position as statewide Chair of College Republicans in exchange for Swearingen removing the post from Twitter. Swearingen refused.
He later claimed that his position as a policy researcher at the Oklahoma State Capitol was in jeopardy due to his Twitter post. Swearingen later said that high-ranking members of the Oklahoma GOP demanded his removal from the Capitol due to his posting of the screenshots. In addition to the threat to his job, Swearingen also experienced fallout in the form of intimidating phone calls and messages from many claiming to be associated with the Oklahoma GOP.
On March 12, all chapters of College Republicans at Oklahoma universities, excluding OU, signed a letter condemning Sheridan Nolen and Luke Harshaw and calling for their resignations. One of the signees was the president of TU College Republicans, Erica Martin. Martin declined an interview, citing instead the content of the letter and its corresponding Facebook post. Shortly after this letter was signed and published on social media, the undersigned College Republican chapters received a cease-and-desist letter from Nolen, putting the threat of legal action on the table if the posts were not removed.
Regarding what the Student Code of Conduct said in relation to questionable conduct on social media, Earl Johnson, the vice president of Student Affairs at TU stated, “TU expects all members of the campus community to interact with one another and the university — whether on social media, verbally, in writing or through any form of digital communication — with mutual respect, dignity, trust and honor. Engaging in irresponsible conduct or behavior that does not model good citizenship or reflects poorly upon the TU community is prohibited. Such conduct can include communications — whether in person or online.
“In addition, actions that rise to the level of harassment or degradation of any member of our community related to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression are not tolerated. Any of these actions would be reviewed and investigated as a breach of the student code of conduct. Sanctions would depend on the severity of the conduct.”
The University of Tulsa is in a unique position to handle these kinds of situations as a private university. TU can act as it sees fit to enforce the Student Code of Conduct, as well as unilaterally work to ensure an open and inclusive environment on campus.
This kind of conduct, both online and in the legal realm, goes beyond what the Code of Conduct outlines. However, the University of Tulsa administration has yet to issue a public statement regarding the incident. When asked about issuing a statement, they responded by saying, “The university does not comment on actions related to specific students.” Nolen was contacted for an interview but declined, citing the same privacy reasons as TU administration.
The situation connects to the more widespread OU College Republican situation, which additionally acts as an area that many universities are not ready to act on when policy is broken. However, what differs this incident from the one in Norman is the retaliation attempts that followed the screenshots being posted.