Freedom of speech and secrecy: sorority sees struggles in leadership

App State’s Alpha Gamma Delta chapter navigates political, racial tension

Emily Broyles, Reporter

In November 2020, one App State student was voted as her sorority’s president. Four months into her term, she has self-suspended from the organization. So have 15 other women, including two advisers. 

Junior Chandler Cohn, former president of the Nu Alpha chapter of Alpha Gamma Delta, says because of a political divide and disagreement on freedom of speech within the chapter, she was “voted out.” 

“I think a lot of people are confused as to what is political and what is just discussing human rights or topics that are really prevalent in our world today,” Cohn said, who joined the organization her freshman year.

Cohn posted a TikTok in the wake of the presidential 2020 election, stating that Donald Trump’s supporters were not Christians. The video was “friends only,” meaning that only Cohn’s followers who she also followed could view it – it was not public. Cohn said she never made a political comment in chapter meetings or on behalf of the sorority.

“While she has every right to her political opinions, a large part of her responsibility as chapter president was to foster unity among chapter members,” Kaitlyn Whisnant, the current president of Nu Alpha, wrote in a statement. “Openly announcing that anyone who supports Trump is not a Christian is in direct conflict with that responsibility.”

She said the president should create “a neutral space for girls to develop their own opinions” in politics.

“As president, while you do have every right to free speech, it is important that we are holding ourselves to a higher standard and not taking a political stance within the context of the chapter,” Whisnant said. 

She said after “several lengthy discussions” about “a number of issues stated” in the chapter’s policies and procedures, the Nu Alpha Executive Council asked Cohn to step down from her position as chapter president.

According to both Cohn and Whisnant, the sorority’s bylaws state it cannot have a political affiliation as an international organization. Members, however; are allowed to voice their own opinions. Both the national organization and App State chapter posted statements on their respective Instagram accounts about issues like Pride Month and Black Lives Matter.

On June 2, 2020, also known as #BlackoutTuesday, Alpha Gamma Delta posted a picture of a black square captioned “Pause. Reflect. Learn.” on its national Instagram. The organization followed up with a new post the next day titled, “We didn’t make it clear enough,” asking people to join them in holding each other “to the highest standards” after backlash.

Nu Alpha has also publicly supported the #StopAAPIHate movement and condemned the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol breach

“The line there is so gray,” said junior Catherine Adams, who joined the chapter in fall 2018. 

Adams, former vice president of campus relations of Nu Alpha, dropped the sorority Jan. 26. She said the sorority’s definitions and approach to political involvement is something she does not agree with. 

“A lot of the time it has to do with performative activism in a way that if Alpha Gamma as a whole didn’t speak out on it at all, they would look bad,” Adams said. “In reality, they’re just not to take a stand wholeheartedly.”

Cohn, a communication sciences and disorders major, said starting her term during election season was challenging, and tensions were high. So high, in fact, that the chapter’s adviser had to ask the group to remain “friendly” during the season. 

“While you are allowed to have your own political views (and I encourage it), I should not be hearing of anyone saying they can’t be friends with a sister because of their political beliefs,” the adviser wrote in an email obtained by The Appalachian. 

Cohn said she was disappointed that she didn’t know about the email before, but it “sparked a really big outrage” within the sorority. Some agreed with the practice, others didn’t. 

“Right before Christmas break … I had a falling out with one of my friends. She ended up dropping the sorority,” said Grace Moyer, a former member. “When she dropped, she told (the executive council) a lot of things about my friends and I that were not true. And one of which was that we had been bullying Trump supporters.”

Moyer, a junior communication studies major, was called into a conference for her actions. A conference is a meeting between a student exec member, the general member and an advisor for Nu Alpha to handle disciplinary issues and self suspensions, according to Whisnant. 

Moyer said accusations were not public nor true, just talked about among friends. After the conference, Moyer posted a TikTok Dec. 30 with the caption “F*ck Trump supporters and f*ck whoever snitched on me.”

“Our adviser sent me an email telling me that I had to delete it. And apparently, she had known about it for a week,” Moyer said. “But, she didn’t choose to tell me to delete it until the day after the terrorist attack that Trump incited on the Capitol.”

It is protocol for the vice president of marketing to address social media policy with members, according to Cohn.

Alpha Gamma Delta’s social media guidelines are confidential. 

Moyer disagreed with the adviser’s timing, and did not delete the TikTok, also stating that her name, school and sorority were nowhere on her account. She said people within the sorority continued to ask her to make the post private or delete it to avoid suspension.

 Moyer self-suspended shortly after, but said this was not the only reason for her dropping. She said a lack of diversity and accountability within the organization pushed her to do so.

President Kaitlyn Whisnant said those who violate the organization’s Code of Standards or social media guidelines are conferenced and informed of what rules were violated and why it is deemed “inappropriate or detrimental to the health and vitality of our chapter.”

 “The process allows the opportunity for education and growth. If a member refuses to delete an inappropriate comment or participate in the conference, the chapter’s executive council has the option to review her membership eligibility,” Whisnant said. 

Transparency and accountability in social media is something that former vice president of marketing Bianca Ramos dealt with numerous times during her time in the organization, “that was getting frustrating.” 

“(Moyer) did break the violation of being disrespectful, but we’re all entitled to our own political opinions. I didn’t necessarily disagree with her. But I mean, I didn’t agree with how she kind of went about it,” Ramos said. “It got to a point where then people on exec were kind of just like, ‘Well, we’re not talking to the chapter. We’re not transparent enough.’ And I’m like, ‘These are supposed to be confidential cases.” 

Executive confidentiality, along with confidentiality in other topics like membership status and disciplinary actions taken in the chapter, is required under Alpha Gamma Policy, according to Whisnant.

While Ramos had to keep some things secret in her marketing position, she originally ran for it to brand the sorority and gain experience as a public relations major. Before she dropped recently, she ran all social media accounts and regularly checked the direct messages of Nu Alpha’s accounts.

A TikTok user direct messaged the sorority’s Instagram account stating a member was racist. On a TikTok discussing historic areas in South Carolina, a Black woman commented that the area mentioned was a place where slaves were sold. A Nu Alpha member replied, saying, “literally if u (sic) lived in the south there were slaves get over it it’s history.” The TikTok user informed Nu Alpha they would take it up with their headquarters.

“I don’t blame them because I understand that they wanted that person to be held accountable,” Cohn said. 

Ramos sent the comment to the chapter adviser and her personal adviser immediately. Executive board members met and unanimously voted to remove the member who made the comment from the chapter. However, there was no immediate action taken in terminating the member. 

Cohn says information was leaked to the member, and she self-suspended. She says her termination should have been immediate without question.  

“If we have a zero tolerance policy for racism like we claim to do, that makes sense. It’s not my place to make judgements about her, but it is my place from a president standpoint to make those decisions,” Cohn said. “Actions have consequences, and that would just be the consequence of that action. We can’t apologize for those things.”

Whisnant said the TikTok comment from the member was hate speech and the individual is being held accountable. 

“We are actively handling the situation. It is important to me that through our organization we are fostering an environment where we are educating members to grow as individuals, while promoting an equitable, just and inclusive future,” she wrote. 

March 8, Cohn released an anonymous survey to women of Nu Alpha to gauge how members were feeling as a whole in the organization. Here, she said she was “alarmed” some women voiced the Black History Month presentation shown the month before was “too political,”and that Cohn “was shoving (her) liberal leftist views in everybody’s faces.”

Cohn, Ramos and Moyer say the racist TikTok comment spearheaded a public petition created by a member on March 20, advocating for Cohn’s removal from office. 

“If you care about freedom of speech, sign this,” wrote another member who shared the petition on Facebook. “My sorority president will not tolerate or let any conservative views allowed in my sorority. Every single program or powerpoint we have are such liberal views it’s ridiculous. She also will bully republicans or Trump supporters…” 

The creator of the petition and member who shared it asked to remain anonymous and declined to comment. The petition has since been deleted. 

Whisnant said the organization has discussed the petition with members involved, but it was not the reason for Cohn’s removal from office. She said members have not come forward to her or other exec members about feeling pressured to sign the petition, a claim that has been made by self-suspended women.

“I’m just very frustrated that people that said racially insensitive comments, bullied me, started petitions, pressured people into signing petitions, are still a part of this chapter,” Cohn said. “It’s wrong, if you ask me.”

When asked about membership status of the individuals who started the petition or made the TikTok comment, Whisnant claimed confidentiality. Whisnant also did not comment on how many women have dropped the chapter this year.

Cohn was called into conference March 21, the day after the petition circulated, about concerns with her position as president. She says she was “voted out” March 25. The new president, Whisnant, was appointed April 1. 

Chloe Brooks, a freshman who dropped April 11, said the sorority “needs to get a handle” on “out of line” members.  

“The chapter adviser has a clique, and they never get in trouble for their actions,” wrote  Brooks. “A lot of things need to change before this chapter is labeled racist and as bullies, and I feel bad for anyone who joins this sorority without knowing the internal problems.” 

Whisnant said her chapter of Alpha Gamma Delta respects the decisions of those who have dropped, and while she is sad to see them go, she, “trust(s) them to make decisions that are best for themselves.”

Cohn, Moyer, Ramos and Brooks all joined the organization to connect with women and felt at home. Cohn said while it has been hard to leave the organization, she doesn’t regret speaking out. 

“I’m really glad that so many people were supporting me and are still supporting me. And do see that it is important to speak up about your values and beliefs. I realized that does sometimes have consequences, but that’s why I’m speaking about them now,” Cohn said. “I really do hope that Greek life as a whole can find that middle ground of having those tough conversations without dragging politics into them. Because again, you know, we all could do better in that sense.”

The Appalachian reached out to Panhellenic President Tori Joy, but she declined to comment. Nu Alpha adviser Kaitlyn Still could not be reached for comment. 

Jenni Despain, senior director of fraternity wellness for international Alpha Gamma Delta, wrote in an email she, along with Still, supports the chapter. Despain said they are in contact with Whisnant.