Education

‘We Crossed Many Lines’

Melinda Hernandez wanted an apology.

Sitting across from her, on a bench tucked in a corner of the picturesque Stanford University campus, was John David Rice-Cameron.

Even at an elite university, Rice-Cameron stood out for his political pedigree: the son of Susan Rice, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser under President Barack Obama, and today head of President Biden’s Domestic Policy Council.

Rice-Cameron, like his mother, has considerable power in his social sphere but at the other end of the ideological spectrum. A fervent Donald Trump supporter, Rice-Cameron took over as president of the Stanford College Republicans in 2018, and he remade the organization in Trump’s image. It became a more combative, and disruptive, presence on campus.

In her 2019 memoir, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice acknowledged that her son’s sharp rightward turn perplexed his parents. Rice, who calls her son “Jake,” wrote that their relationship was at times tumultuous, and that “a phone call or casual conversation in the car or around the dinner table can escalate into an explosive, sometimes profane argument.”

That argumentative streak has taken hold of the chapter Rice-Cameron led. On Facebook, the Stanford College Republicans promote Trump’s false voter-fraud claims and defend the January 6 Capitol insurrectionists as “political prisoners.” It is a microcosm of the ascendant wing of the Republican Party, promoting fake conspiracy theories and embracing fringe politicians.

For that, members have been rewarded. The Stanford College Republicans attended a sit-down dinner in 2019 with Vice President Mike Pence and California GOP donors. The campus group is one of the few student organizations permitted by the university to receive outside money, and donors have participated in on-campus meetings. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Trump supporter David Blumberg praised Rice-Cameron as a “very charismatic individual.” “He has had a very interesting perch because of his parents, to see stuff from the inside,” said Blumberg, who has attended a handful of the group’s events. “And I think that’s like a bonus, like frosting on his cake.” Blumberg declined to say whether he has donated money to the club.

The group relishes getting into confrontational political debates with the university’s mostly liberal student body. In the fall of 2018, the Stanford College Republicans displayed a sign on a campus plaza supporting the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, who was battling accusations of past sexual misconduct. (He denied all the charges, and his selection was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.)

“Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty,” the group’s sign read.

A student walked up to the group’s members to tell them that their sign was causing emotional pain for sexual-assault survivors. Then Hernandez walked up, and told the Stanford College Republicans that “there are better ways” to have this sort of conversation.

Rice-Cameron and another member started recording Hernandez on their cell phones, Hernandez said. She asked them to stop, and they did. Then Rice-Cameron started recording again, and he claimed Hernandez assaulted him in response.

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Holden Foreman, The Stanford Daily

John Rice-Cameron told the police in 2018 that Melinda Hernandez had assaulted him.

“She got in my face and proceeded to hit me in the chest area and push me back forcefully,” Rice-Cameron told Stanford’s student newspaper at the time. “Nobody should be assaulted on campus, under any circumstances.” Hernandez says she had merely knocked Rice-Cameron’s phone away, because she didn’t want to be recorded.

The same day Rice-Cameron leveled his assault charge, another member of the Stanford College Republicans emailed a private apology to Hernandez, conceding she’d been unfairly vilified. “It is obvious that in this incident, we crossed many lines,” the member wrote. “It seems clear to me that we are milking this for all it’s worth, and are demonstrating little to no concern for you or your well-being,” she added.

Another former member, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the entire Kavanaugh episode was rooted in mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy. At an event to complain that Kavanaugh had been falsely accused of sexual assault, the club leveled false allegations against a fellow student. “It felt like they were almost trying to trigger people,” the ex-member said. “They were almost getting a thrill, or some kind of weird joy, out of triggering people, out of making people upset.”

The assault accusation made headlines in The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, and The Chronicle. Hernandez received death threats, she told The Chronicle. At the same time, Fox News picked up the story, showing its viewers a photo of Hernandez, taken by Rice-Cameron, as the assault allegation was described in detail. “It’s very difficult for students, any student, to promote conservatism,” Ben Esposito, the Stanford College Republicans’ treasurer at the time, told the Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “Students are expected to conform.”

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“Hey, Ben, keep doing exactly what you’re doing,” Ingraham told him.

Six days after the incident, Rice-Cameron dropped his complaint against Hernandez. A couple weeks later, they crossed paths on campus and Hernandez asked him to chat. He agreed, and the two sat down together. She said she firmly stated her case.

I never assaulted you. I simply tried to push your cell phone out of your hand, because you were recording me without my permission for a second time.

Hernandez said that Rice-Cameron’s response on that day was defiant. Instead of apologizing, he emphasized that he’d voluntarily dropped the misdemeanor battery charges against her. “What he told me was, they could have done worse,” Hernandez said. “They could have gotten this on my record, they could have taken this to bigger newscasts.”

“He was kind of wanting me to feel like I got lucky the way things ended up playing out,” Hernandez said. “When in reality, I didn’t do anything, and it really baffled me.”

By the end of the conversation, Rice-Cameron offered a half-apology “if this affected you,” Hernandez said.

Philip Eykamp, a former member of the Stanford College Republicans who, like Rice-Cameron, graduated last year, said the club’s actions toward Hernandez were about sending a message: If you attack SCR, “you’re going to have an outcome that you don’t want.”

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Jim Vondruska for The Chronicle

Melinda Hernandez

Hernandez’s experience was emblematic of a key feature of the Stanford College Republicans’ identity. Perhaps more notable than what the group stands for is who it stands against, and how. It is always on the attack, amassing its online following in the service of targeting people deemed enemies. That includes professors, students, and even recent graduates. And so far, Stanford administrators have done little or nothing to stop it.

Across California and the nation, campus conservative groups are increasingly embracing extremism, as alt-right figures, anti-vaxxers, and white nationalist groups hold more power within today’s Republican Party. California’s campus groups are generally split, with some student GOP chapters embracing the new brand of politics, while others resist and continue to promote more-traditional conservatism. Stanford’s experience shows how extremism — and the resulting chaos and infighting — can take root even at one of the nation’s most-elite universities.

Reached at his cell phone, Rice-Cameron declined to speak with a Chronicle reporter.

“I think you have the wrong number,” he said, although the voice-mail greeting included Rice-Cameron’s voice, which identified him by name.

Hernandez is not the only student — or university employee — to be targeted by the Stanford College Republicans. The group launched a campaign in 2018 against Hamzeh Daoud, a dorm resident assistant, who wrote on Facebook about the passage of a law in Israel that has been criticized as discriminatory against Arab citizens. “I’m gonna physically fight Zionists on campus next year if someone comes at me with their ‘Israel is a democracy’ bullshit,” Daoud wrote.

A few hours later, Daoud, who is of Palestinian descent, edited the Facebook post to say “intellectually fight Zionists,” adding that “physical fighting is never an answer.”

The group was not satisfied by Daoud’s self-correction. Stanford College Republicans urged supporters to push for Daoud’s removal. “An RA who publicly displays violent anti-Israel hate will not create a safe dorm community,” the group wrote in one internal document, which included contact information for various administrators. “We have the momentum: You have the power to make Stanford safer.”

At the same time, some people living in the Palo Alto area began to see an advertisement on Facebook, sponsored by an anonymous group called See4Yourself. The ad identified Daoud by name, mentioned the initial threat against Zionists, and asked: “Are you aware of what’s going on at Stanford?” The ad also urged Facebook users to email the vice provost.

Daoud voluntarily quit the RA position.

Earlier this year, the Stanford College Republicans crusaded against a recent graduate, Emily Wilder. As a student, she was a thorn in the side of the club — criticizing its members as intellectual frauds and calling them unworthy of attention. When the group gained notoriety (and publicity) by inviting controversial speakers to campus, Wilder urged students to resist being trolled by its “B-list professional provocateurs.”

After Wilder had graduated, the group got its revenge.

Wilder had landed a job as an entry-level reporter for the Associated Press, covering local news in Arizona, but the Stanford Republicans amplified years-old tweets — in which she’d expressed support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel — as evidence that she could not be an objective journalist. Right-wing media outlets ran with the story. The Associated Press fired Wilder, who is Jewish, and the Stanford College Republicans declared victory.

“Emily Wilder is not a journalist, she is an unhinged, Marxist, anti-Israel agitator,” the group wrote on Twitter. “We are proud that our efforts directly led to this outcome — the leftist media must be held accountable, and that happened in this case.”

But other conservatives at Stanford were alarmed.

“After learning about Emily’s recent employment as a journalist, SCR published her Twitter account, email address, and new employment information on Facebook,” wrote Maxwell Meyer, a friend of Wilder’s, in The Stanford Review, a right-leaning student publication. “They then promoted claims that she is a Jihadist and a ‘hate-filled terrorist’ on Twitter and promoted other outlets ‘reporting’ the ‘story.’ These actions are obscene.”

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Noah Berger

David Palumbo-Liu

In an interview with The Chronicle, Michael Whittaker, a former member of the Stanford College Republicans, acknowledged that Wilder was a “political opponent,” but he said those past battles were “almost irrelevant.” Whittaker emphasized that the club attached Wilder’s original social-media posts as evidence when it accused her of anti-Israel bias.

Did the group go too far in the Emily Wilder case? “Absolutely not,” Whittaker said.

Reached by The Chronicle, Wilder declined comment.

Faculty, too, have felt the sting of the campus group’s weaponized outrage. In early 2018, Rice-Cameron wrote an opinion piece accusing a longtime Stanford professor, David Palumbo-Liu, of being a “ring-leader” of antifa — the leaderless movement of activists opposed to fascism, which has sometimes embraced violent tactics. Right-wing media and politicians have seized upon antifa as a leftist bogeyman.

Rice-Cameron made the accusation because Palumbo-Liu had co-founded a national organization called the Campus Antifascist Network. The two entities are unrelated, and Palumbo-Liu has publicly stated he has no connection to antifa. That didn’t matter. Rice-Cameron’s claims against Palumbo-Liu went viral in conservative media, prompting death threats against the comparative-literature professor, he said.

Student reporters interviewed Rice-Cameron a few months later, and he acknowledged that part of his goal in targeting Palumbo-Liu was to intimidate other professors and discourage them from any future association with the antifa movement. He suggested that other faculty members will think, “Hey, I don’t want to get the same negative publicity that Professor Palumbo-Liu got.”

Right-wing attacks on universities are “not about free speech,” Palumbo-Liu said in an interview. “It’s about organized and calculated malicious behavior, and misuse of social media.”

In 2018 Stanford was hosting a public speaker series called Cardinal Conversations. But an internal battle emerged over who should be invited to speak.

Student groups expressed frustration that many speaker slots were filled by conservative figures, including Charles Murray, the controversial political scientist best known for his book on race and intelligence, The Bell Curve. After the Murray event, Rice-Cameron wrote to a member of the speaker-series committee: Niall Ferguson, the conservative historian who is also a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Rice-Cameron boasted that student protesters during the Murray talk were limited to an outdoor demonstration, which he called a “clear victory.”

“Slowly,” Rice-Cameron wrote in emails obtained by The Stanford Daily student newspaper, “we will crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”

In an email to Rice-Cameron and other conservative students, Ferguson suggested targeting Michael Ocon, a politically progressive student who had organized the student opposition to Murray’s appearance on campus. Ferguson urged the conservative students to conduct “some opposition research on Mr. O.”

But the emails were leaked to the media, and, in the fallout, Ferguson abruptly stepped down from the Cardinal Conversations committee. He remains at the Hoover Institution.

The Stanford College Republicans’ public face is its combative social-media accounts. But The Chronicle obtained internal group-chat messages that provide a rare glimpse inside the club. Revealed in the texts are moments of pride, the airing of controversial views, and occasional instances of self-doubt.

The screenshots indicate that Rice-Cameron continues to be involved in the student club’s activities, despite having graduated last year. And his status as an alumnus hasn’t stopped him from attacking Stanford students. This April, he emailed administrators calling for a student senator to be expelled from the university because of offensive comments she once posted on social media.

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Internal Stanford College Republicans group chat message, obtained by The Chronicle

A common theme of the group chats is members boasting of their power. That includes bragging about getting stories planted in right-wing media. “Congrats SCR is quoted in Breitbart!” Rice-Cameron wrote during one text exchange last year. “Wow, we’re in the Daily Wire,” he wrote in another.

But the screenshots also show that members, at times, had misgivings about hurting their fellow students. “Why are we doxing ppl?” asked one member in such an exchange, referring to the group’s crusade against the student senator, who once tweeted, “White people need to be eradicated.” The member wrote that they didn’t necessarily agree with the targeted student’s viewpoints, “but would you want ppl looking through your social media picking out the most salacious things to try to make you look bad?”

Another member responded that “it’s social media and it’s open to everyone to see anyways. That’s what you agree on when you use the internet.”

In other exchanges, members repeatedly expressed worry about the influence of LGBTQ people on society. “Yeah pedophilia is already being normalized,” wrote one member, who added: “Also lots of sex offenses are being relaxed for trans offenders.” The member acknowledged, “This is a bit of a controversial take.”

In another discussion, a member posted a picture of what appears to be a semi-automatic weapon. “Feelin’ problematic might delete later idk,” he wrote.

Whittaker, the former member who graduated last year, posted a photo of himself in Washington, D.C., on January 6. “Well we may be doomed, but at the very least I’m going to whine about it,” Whittaker wrote in the chat, alongside the shot of himself posing in front of the Washington Monument wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

He told The Chronicle he had remained near the White House and did not participate in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. “I was in the city to protest what I believed to be the result of a fraudulent election,” Whittaker said. Claims of widespread fraud in the presidential election have been thoroughly debunked.

The group’s aggressive posture has been met with some resistance on campus. In February, the student newspaper ran an opinion essay with the headline, “SCR does not deserve its place on campus.”

“In any community, there is an unspoken social contract,” the newspaper wrote. “That contract must include space for differing opinions, but it also must include a commitment to community members’ safety and well-being.”

“SCR has broken this contract countless times,” it added.

The student newspaper has also criticized campus administrators for failing to discipline the Stanford College Republicans. When asked if Stanford had failed to rein in the group’s behavior, a university spokesperson wrote: “We do not condone expressions of hatred, violence, or retaliation. Nor does the university condone online harassment. We aspire to be a community in which our disagreements can be discussed in a spirit of respect with one another as members of the same community.”

The muted nature of Stanford’s response was especially evident in one incident from 2019, when the Stanford College Republicans marched on Casa Zapata, Stanford’s Latinx/Chicanx-themed dorm.

As a rule, visitors must be invited by a dorm resident. That rule was created after residents noticed “Build the wall!” and “Trump 2020” messages written in common areas of the dorm. After the stricter policy took effect, members of the Stanford College Republicans attempted to enter the dorm to post fliers promoting an event with Ben Shapiro, the conservative commentator and a co-founder of The Daily Wire.

Dorm staff kicked the Republicans out, but the group returned a week later, on a Sunday night, gathering in front of the dorm entrance. Members demanded entry, with voices raised, and cell phones recording.

“Should we consider calling the police?” one RA asked in an internal group chat. “Not yet,” another responded. At 10:21 p.m., another RA warned, “We want y’all to also remember that SCR ppl specifically are often intentionally seeking attention and engagement.”

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Valerie Chiang for The Chronicle

The tense situation cooled down after someone from the dorm promised the club that they would post the Ben Shapiro fliers on the organization’s behalf — so long as the group left peaceably. The fliers were handed over. The protesting members left. Immediately after, the group complained to right-wing media about its unfair treatment. The Daily Wire headline declared: “Stanford Conservatives ‘Mobbed’ For Putting Up Ben Shapiro Posters, Student Org Says.”

A university statement released several weeks later implied that the College Republicans were not the victims in the Casa Zapata incident. “We have learned about a student group demanding entrance into Casa Zapata although those present do not live there and are not invited guests,” wrote the provost, Persis Drell.

“We have learned about the same student group gathering outside Casa Zapata with cameras, appearing to record residents and guests as they came and went. These behaviors do not comport with our expectations for a caring, respectful community.” The statement added, “We need to respect that there are people on our campus who just want to feel safe and secure inside their homes and community spaces.”

The strongly worded statement did not announce any discipline or name the offending group: the Stanford College Republicans.

Following the provost’s statement, Stanford’s student newspaper wrote: “At this point, we must ask — to whom is this administration beholden? How much harm must be inflicted on this student body before it takes action?”

Last month tensions escalated further. A Stanford College Republicans member published a series of offensive social-media posts, including a racist cartoon and an image of a gorilla next to two Black students, with text reading, “Spot the difference.” The student, Chaze Vinci, also expressed admiration for Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who served three months in jail for raping an unconcious woman on the campus in 2015. “A woman always gets what’s coming to her,” Vinci wrote.

Vinci’s mother, in a Facebook post, wrote that her son had suffered a “severe mental breakdown.”

Stanford responded by banning Vinci from returning to campus, while leaving open the possibility of additional punishment. “The threatening language and identity-based attacks in the posts are totally inconsistent with what we want, or will accept, at Stanford,” President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote in an email announcing the punishment.

Some faculty and students blamed the Stanford College Republicans for creating a toxic climate that encouraged Vinci’s posts. The conservative group quickly terminated Vinci’s membership, and called his words “racially abhorrent.”

“We are an organization of over 150 students,” the group wrote on Twitter. “And in no way do the statements of one individual represent the principles and values of our organization.”

The group added, “Predictably, leftists have baselessly used these statements to smear our organization.”


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