A conservative student group at Texas A&M with a fraught relationship with President Barack Obama has again found itself in the spotlight after word got out about a controversial advertisement circulating on campus featuring the president.

A digital flyer promoting the Texas Aggie Conservatives appeared on Texas A&M computers last month. The image, seen at left, features a photo illustration of President Obama dressed in baggy jeans, an oversized flannel shirt, and sneakers with the phrases, “Think he NEEDS a time out?” and “Join TAC!”

The flyer led some in the blogosphere to label the group racist bigots guilty of producing hate speech.

So, what happened?
Burnt Orange Report broke the news of the flyer to the broader world. In a post on the progressive political blog, Ben Sherman, a junior at UT-Austin and a Think Progress intern, slammed the student organization for releasing the ad, which he dubbed “hateful, vile and above all, racist.”

According to Sherman, an Evans Library staff member saw the ad running as a computer screensaver on June 14 and reported it to both the dean of libraries and the vice president for diversity, “finding it distasteful and out of step with the values of the university.” (Any of the 800-plus student organizations on A&M’s campus can request that their PSAs appear on school computers, so long as their ads abide by these guidelines.)

But, apparently the ad didn’t come down for several weeks. When asked about the dustup over the ad by the TM Daily Post, A&M’s vice president for information technology Pierce Cantrell said the BOR had errors in its reports. “We didn’t take [the TAC] PSA down. I mean, it was submitted to run from June 10 to June 17, and it ran, and then it expired,” he said.

Cantrell said that the university decided to end the PSA service on the computers in the library and other “open access labs” effective July 9. How did they come to that decision? Well, Cantrell said he “got kind of a handful of direct complaints” regarding the ad, with some finding it “overly political.” “The complaints caused us to reevaluate the service,” he said. And, ultimately, the school will save $70,000 a year in energy costs by sending the computers into sleep mode instead of running the PSAs as screensavers.

Was TAC in the wrong?
Here’s what Sherman argued in his post:

1. President Obama is depicted as a boy who needs a “time out.”  As most Americans know, “boy” has been used constantly throughout American history to deride and classify African-American men as inferior people. It is an image which works to justify control (i.e., giving a “time out”) over African-Americans through dehumanization.

2. President Obama is depicted in baggy, hip-hop clothing. The associations inherent in this portrayal are obvious: the president is a black “street kid” who must be shown his place. While in real life, this clothing is not necessarily indicative of one lifestyle or another, the context of the image and the accompanying text solidifies its racism.

3. The ad demeans the president. Following and well before the 2008 election, Republicans and self-described conservatives have incessantly called President Obama a terrorist sympathizer, a Manchurian president, and compared him to history’s worst mass murderers. Their hate speech against the president and his causes prompted the Department of Homeland Security to release a report on the dangers posed by violent right-wing extremists. President Obama receives 30 death threats a day, a 400% increase over President Bush. This hateful rhetoric, employed so transparently in this ad, is a genuine national security threat and a scourge to a healthy American political system.

Comments in response to Sherman’s posts reflected a wide variety of opinions, with some saying they didn’t consider the ad racist at all.

Whether TAC intended to portray a racist message or not, it seems clear that the group isn’t thrilled about the negative attention—TAC technology and visibility director Eric Schroeder sent an email to BOR threatening to take legal action for publishing the group’s property, as their ad is “copyrighted by their respective owners and reproduction and redistribution is strictly prohibited.”

Then, TAC’s Schroeder emailed a vague official statement to members of the press, which focused only on the faults of the president and A&M rather than their intent behind the ad:

It’s outrageous that the political left is resorting to strained race-baiting slander instead of talking about real issues like unemployment and the economy. President Obama refuses to take responsibility for his harmful policies and blames others like a child would do.  The political left is merely trying to deflect attention from Obama’s lack of leadership. Shamefully, Texas A&M would rather shut down an entire free speech forum than let a conservative viewpoint be heard.

TAC’s History of Controversy
So, who are these Texas Aggie Conservatives anyway? Previously, they were known as the Texas A&M chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas. They seem to have a history of ticking people off by being intolerant.

TAC made national news four years ago when they set up a carnival booth of sorts with then-Democratic nominee Obama’s photo displayed, encouraging students to throw eggs at the president’s face. Their faculty advisor, John Fike, was so embarrassed by the “Anti-Obama Carnival” that he stepped down as their leader. “I’m not interested in being their adviser with these juvenile acts going on,” Fike told The Battalion, A&M’s campus daily.

Then, when the president made an appearance at the university in 2009 to discuss volunteerism, the group organized a protest complete with signs depicting Obama as Hitler. (Former President George H.W. Bush even tried to head this all off by writing an open letter to students in advance of the president’s visit, encouraging them to put aside politics and to allow Obama “to experience the open, decent and welcoming Aggie spirit for himself.”)

On their website, group members don “Beat the Hell Outta Obama” t-shirts, and a 2009 New York Times article labeled then-chairman of the organization Justin Pulliam “the most dangerous young man on campus.” (Since heading up the group, Pulliam has graduated from A&M and now blogs for campusreform.org, a resource for conservative students nationwide.) 

In 2010, the student group passed out fliers that vilified Islam, displaying the words, “These are the truths you aren’t supposed to know!” Last year, Pulliam and another TAC officer appeared on “Fox and Friends” denouncing Gov. Perry’s brainchild, Texas’ DREAM act, claiming that “tax and tuition dollars should not be spent to subsidize tuition for illegal immigrants who can’t legally work in the United States after they graduate.”

More recently, TAC launched a petition to stop what they call “institutional funding bias” to the university’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Center, arguing that there should be an on-campus resource promoting “traditional family values” and sparking a campus-wide debate.

Many on campus think the group’s views are not widely shared, including Texas A&M Student Body President John Claybrook, who told the TM Daily Post, “There are over 850 organizations on A&M’s campus, and they are all going to have different opinions. That does not mean that it is representative of the student body as a whole.”

Claybrook said we should celebrate various viewpoints, calling places of higher education a “marketplace of ideas.”

“Issues like this help students to solidify their views,” Claybrook said.

There’s also a Facebook group entitled “Aggies Embarrassed by the Texas Aggie Conservatives,” providing a place for the 91 members to share news and (negative) opinions regarding TAC. This is the description of the social media group, written by its administrators:

I cringe whenever an example of TAC’s willful ignorance and closed-mindedness makes the front page of The Batt. TAC is creating a hostile environment for students who do not share their background or beliefs. I am embarrassed by TAC because I believe in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Values of Civil Conversation, Religious Freedom, Debating in Good Faith, and Not Making Bizarre Unfounded Claims Based Solely On Personal Animus And Then Trying To Back It Up By Googling A Tenuously Related Term And Citing The First Search Result.

Attempts to reach university officials were mostly unsuccessful (TAC sued A&M late last month for refusing to fund one of their events, and university policy says they can’t talk due to pending litigation), and the only TAC representative who was reached declined to comment. But senior education major Greg Castille and A&M student worker said he doesn’t believe TAC’s ad is overtly racist.

“Since A&M is so conservative, people want to go to racism,” Castille said. “If you look hard enough, you’ll find that. Do I think they take party lines too far? Yes.”

Angela Washeck, a summer intern at TEXAS MONTHLY, is a senior at Texas A&M.