Alerts & Actions

Statement on threats against MSU Queer Straight Alliance

March 23, 2023

The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) is deeply concerned to hear reports of frequent and persistent use of racial slurs, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and threats of violence on MSU’s Bozeman campus. Freedom of speech has become a flashpoint on college campuses as political polarization has found its way into our institutions of higher learning. MSU is no exception, and a recent case, Danley v. Christian et al., is a pertinent example. As colleges and universities across the nation attempt to navigate increasingly politically charged waters, many universities are choosing to overcorrect. In their desire to balance viewpoints, we betray a fundamental truth. Prejudiced, discriminatory, and threatening speech, including the use of racist and homophobic slurs, is not protected speech. Hostile actions are not protected either, as evidenced by a federal judge’s rejection of White nationalist Andrew Anglin’s attempt to hide behind the First Amendment after attacking the Jewish community in Whitefish.

Since settling Danley v. Christian et al., MSU has been exceptionally quiet on the issue of campus climate and the collection of events that led to the case. Media coverage of Danley v. Christian et al. has been woefully oversimplistic, often downplaying the severity of the reported behavior, and overlooking the actions and statements that MSU students have endured after the settlement. In this void, far-right news media sources have seized an opportunity to grossly mischaracterize the case and amplify a message that negatively affects LGBTQ+ students in colleges and universities across the nation. Unless you speak to students directly, you’ll hear little about the severity of the situation on campus.

In the absence of accurate information, far-right news sources are lauding the removal of consequences for targeted, aggressive behavior as a victory against “wokeness” and have bypassed the core issues of campus safety and belonging. Media coverage of extremism is historically bad, which prompted MHRN to issue two reporting guides, one on far-right extremism and another on LGBTQ+ issues to help media outlets more accurately and responsibly cover these deeply politicized realities. Far-right media isn’t the only opportunist here. In February, unknown entities began relaying explicitly anti-LGBTQ, threatening, and abusive messages to the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at MSU through an anonymous server.

Former Montana legislator and attorney Matthew Monforton is taking advantage of the situation as well. In Danley v. Christian et al., Danley was represented by Monforton, a well-known individual in extremist circles. During his time in the legislature, Monforton was responsible for introducing some of Montana’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ policy proposals of the time. More recently, Monforton was a driving force behind failed ballot initiative CI-121, which would have cut taxes for Montana’s wealthy while gutting local services. Monforton also frequently finds his way into legal challenges and courtrooms, defending individuals for anti-LGBTQ actions including transphobia and homophobia. In the courts, he has served as an allied attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. Monforton also defended disgraced former Pastor Jordan “J.D” Hall, who had built a reputation as an extremist kingmaker through his blog, in a case brought by a transgender activist. Monforton and Hall settled the lawsuit and admitted it published false accusations about the activist, leading to the downfall of Hall’s influence and his blog which peddled extremist talking points and aggressive anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Whenever a case targeting the LGBTQ+ community surfaces, it’s often Monforton who is there to protect those acting on homophobia and transphobia.

The climate on MSU’s campus parallels anti-LGBTQ sentiment emanating from Helena. Since the Montana legislature gaveled into session in January, it has been a bottomless source of extreme anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and rampant misinformation. Legislators in Helena frequently and intentionally mischaracterize all facets of queer life and culture. Multiple anti-LGBTQ bills with sweeping consequences are moving forward with strong prospects of passage. These bills, which MHRN has named the “Slate of Hate,” are wildly unconstitutional, infringing on personal freedoms and liberties, including freedom of speech, parental rights, self-determination and bodily autonomy. The unconstitutionality of these bills has not prevented the state’s GOP supermajority from advancing these factually incorrect bills, and the Governor is attempting to amass a legal war chest for the inevitable legal challenges that will follow his signature of these bills into law.

The Montana Human Rights Network has 30+ years of experience monitoring, tracking, and helping individuals and communities respond to far-right extremism. The targeting of LGBTQ+ students on the MSU campus follows a common playbook used by White nationalists and other right-wing extremists. Those using threatening behavior through email and social media gravitate to platforms that either help them remain anonymous and/or rarely enforce community standards against online harassment. For instance, the email threats against QSA MSU originated from a Proton Mail account, an encrypted service favored by extremists. Keeping their true identities hidden, these social media predators send threatening messages to targeted people, circulate degrading content about those targeted, and sometimes dox their targets. Extremists hope to set into a motion a series of events that might escalate into physical violence while avoiding responsibility for their actions. As we’ve seen in the recent developments around MSU, they specialize in using intimidation, harassment, and threats as tools to create chaos and fear. These operatives intentionally target people who already face discrimination in order to make them feel unsafe and isolated.

MSU’s administration should proactively and aggressively denounce the threats against LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students. The MSU administration, allies on campus, and the Bozeman community should provide support to the student constituencies targeted. The threats and harassment are meant to make targeted communities feel as if they are alone and cut off from support. It’s up to the MSU administration and the broader campus and Bozeman community to make it clear that is not the case.

The Montana Human Rights Network asserts the right of all students to a safe and inclusive learning environment. “Student groups who receive threats of violence deserve a clear response from their university administration providing them with a detailed, comprehensive, and measurable plan of action to improve the campus climate and ensure their safety and wellbeing,” said Dr. Angelina González-Aller, Executive Director of the Montana Human Rights Network. Our conversations with MSU students indicate that unchecked behavior at MSU is creating an environment of fear and intimidation that is on the precipice of escalation towards physical harm and violence. We urge Bozeman community members to speak out in support of queer and BIPOC students on campus and eagerly await an appropriate plan of action from Montana State University’s leadership.