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DePaul Republicans in spotlight after controversial speaker visit

Nicole Been, 21, and John Minster, 19, are president and vice president of the DePaul College Republicans. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Nicole Been, 21, and John Minster, 19, are president and vice president of the DePaul College Republicans. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

In a college coffee shop crammed with students all working at their laptops, John Minster isn’t hard to spot: His computer is the one plastered with bumper stickers reading “Cruz 2016,” “I love the Constitution” and “WWRD?” — as in, What Would Ronald Reagan Do?

Otherwise, he’d pass for any other DePaul University male student, with his morning stubble, sun-deprived skin and, on this day, a green T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

In recent days, Minster, a freshman and vice president of the DePaul College Republicans, has become accustomed to other labels: “racist,” “white supremacist.”

The group drew the fury of activists after they invited the conservative online writer Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on May 24. Protesters stormed the stage, ultimately forcing Yiannopoulos and his hosts to abandon the student center’s auditorium, the first time current college administrators could recall such an ending to a campus event.

Students who attended were furious that security didn’t give the protesters the boot, while others were enraged that Yiannopoulos — who delights in mocking feminists and civil rights activists, among others — was allowed to speak on campus at all.

In a June 2 email to the entire university community, DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider wrote: “I am deeply sorry for the harm that was unleashed by a speaker whose intent was to ignite racial tensions and demean those most marginalized, both in our society and at DePaul.”

Holtschneider noted concerns from earlier in the year of black students “growing weary of the racism they found at DePaul.” But the president, promising to put together a task force to look at speech on campus, said “the bar on free speech is extremely high at a university.”

In its May 31 edition, The DePaulia student newspaper devoted eight of nine news pages to the Yiannopoulos event and the fallout from it, with the paper’s editor in chief, Matthew Paras, describing it as the biggest breaking news story on campus during his five years at the publication.

The incident has dramatically raised the profile of an organization that sometimes has difficulty filling a small college classroom for its weekly meetings.

“We typically get a lot of people who come in and out,” Minster, who is studying economics, said during a chat at the student center.

“Or they just don’t want to be seen with us,” joked Nicole Been, 21, president of the Republican group.

Perhaps even less so now.

Been, who is from Orland Park and calls herself a strong Donald Trump supporter, said she’s been getting a lot of “mean looks” on campus.

“Just a few days ago, me and my friend were walking . . . and people started following us and yelling, ‘white supremacist,’ ‘racist,’ ” said Been, an education major. “People started following me to the quad. I was not looking my best that day, and I was surprised they recognized me.”

Been and Minster said they expected protesters when their group invited Yiannopoulos to speak. At the DePaul event, after the protesters, mostly African-Americans, took over the stage, Yiannopoulos, who is gay, said: “I worked out why there are so many black girls here. I think it’s because I f—– their brothers.”

But Minster and Been expected the campus security to remove the protesters, which didn’t happened.

The DePaul Republicans say they chose Yiannopoulos, in part, because they’d had limited success with past on-campus events.

“People would come, but they’d be on their phones,” Been said. “They weren’t real excited about it.”

Former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum drew about 100 people last week. About 550 people came to hear Yiannopoulos, Minster said.

“We don’t support racism, period,” Minster said. “But we do support interesting arguments that sort of challenge the norms that people think about every day at this school. DePaul prides itself on social justice, diversity and multiculturalism and all those things. So we thought it would be interesting to bring someone who is directly against all those things.”

Mario Morrow Jr., president of DePaul’s Black Student Union, said Yiannopolous clearly crosses the line: “He is promoting hate speech, making it seem OK to everyone that this is acceptable language to use, especially on a college campus built on diversity.”

Neither Minster nor Been said they plan to avoid controversial speakers for future events. They do plan to make sure they have sufficient security.

Does either have regrets about attending a college where perhaps a majority of the students don’t share their political leanings?

Both say no. They have opportunities at DePaul that they might not have at a more traditionally conservative school.

“Gov. Rauner’s people came to me and we’re like, we need to start this thing up and get him elected,” Been said. “[U.S. Sen.] Mark Kirk’s people have been reaching out to us. Opportunities are endless here because there are so few of us. So everything is at our fingertips.”

Said Minster: “I’m not looking to go to a school that might tell me exactly what I might already know. I would prefer if DePaul had a little bit more of a conservative lean than where we are now.”

“Or even just like a moderate lean,” Been added.