How Virginia college campuses are using Facebook to organize against anti-gay attorney general

Not long ago, Quentin Kidd, a faculty adviser for the student government association at Christopher Newport University, located in Newport News, Virginia, spoke with two politically active students at the school. Nicolaus Usry and Shannon Rhoten, heads of campus Republican and Democrat organizations, had come to him disturbed by a recent letter sent to several schools by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. According to the Washington Post, the letter “urged the state’s public colleges and universities to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” arguing that “their boards of visitors had no legal authority to adopt such statements.”

Usry and Rhoten, along with hundreds of other students and faculty, strongly disagreed with this notion and wanted to quickly organize some kind of response.

“So Shannon created this Facebook page, as it was kind of a natural way to communicate,” Kidd told me in a recent phone conversation. “I didn’t actually realize that they would put me on as an administrator of the group, but they did. And I think their goal initially was to raise awareness, and they saw this as the most expedient way to do so.”

In less than 48 hours, the group has amassed over 600 members and is among several others that have sprouted up across the state, almost all of which are organized by students vehemently opposed to campuses rescinding policies relating to discrimination against gays.

Kidd said the students are already organizing an on-campus rally, and the Facebook group has acted as an effective way to disseminate news.

“I’m not even sure that they would bother with the traditional method of posting fliers around campus,” he explained. “In their minds I think it would be a Facebook-generated event; they’ve already got 600 people in 48 hours that have joined this group. They can create an event as part of that group and immediately speak to 600 people and then encourage those 600 people to speak to anyone who doesn’t already know about it. So in this way, virtual organizing is simply the only way they’re going to do it.”

My brother PJ is a junior at CNU and one of those who joined the Facebook group. “Everyone seems to be really upset, even some of my conservative friends,” he told me. “Several of my friends who are in the Young Republicans club are involved with the organizing of opposition. Students fought really hard a few years ago to get the discrimination wording added to CNU’s discrimination policy….. many of those students who fought for it are now seniors, and they are really upset.”

Kidd, who has been a faculty member for 13 years and taught at Texas Tech before that, said that social media has created a new form of campus activism that is reminiscent of the Vietnam protests that swept across American college campuses decades ago. “As I was going through college and graduate school, campus activism was sort of on the wane. I was probably at the heart of the post-Vietnam wane in campus activism, but it’s really picked up a lot in the past eight years.”

The faculty member stressed that this current example of social media activism isn’t directed toward campus administrators, but instead is targeted at Cuccinelli and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Governor McDonnell. To his knowledge, no campus faculty or administrators have given any indication that they plan to rescind the anti-discrimination rules.

“My sense is that there’s a level of frustration and anxiety demonstrated within the last two days — with 600 people joining in 48 hours — that’s just right under the surface,” he explained.

Facebook, therefore, is simply a way for this surface tension to break out into the open and, these organizers hope, send Cuccinelli a message, one that relays that his anti-gay rhetoric will not go unchallenged.