Over the 2022-23 school year, the BYU Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) Instagram account has drawn concern from BYU students. The (OCE) website states their mission is “to provide students and faculty with the appropriate skills and meaningful opportunities to become engaged in their respective communities. We seek to promote civic service and to encourage everyone to find ways to solve the problems around them.”
The office often spearheads voting registration efforts on campus and recently won the state-wide campus cup for registering the highest number of student voters. However, students have expressed concern that the social media of the OCE has been partisan and unprofessional.
A Woke BYU Account
As an officially BYU-branded account, the OCE Instagram page is expected to follow BYU’s political neutrality policy which states, “avoid any impression that a particular political candidate, party, or faction has the support or endorsement of the university… and preclude any political candidate, party, or faction from exploiting a relationship with the university for partisan ends.”
Last semester, the account shared a post from the Black Menaces account advertising the “Strike Out Homophobia” – later changed to “Strike Out Queerphobia” – protest. This protest was hosted in partnership with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project or REAP. Their purpose is to eliminate religious Title IX exemptions at religious universities. Dallin H Oaks defended these exemptions in a BYU devotional September 13, 2022, one month before the protest.
Last semester, the account also shared posts about white privilege from @antiracisteducation, a diversity to inclusion career fair from @raynbow.collective and @cougarpridecenter. The account also posted a story on banned book week 2022 asking, “what banned books have you read?” Banned book week has been a response, in part, to conservative parents looking to restrict CRT and sexually explicit topics being discussed in books for grade school children.
On February 27, the account shared a post from @colorthecampus advertising the “rainbow day” taking place on March 3. @colorthecampus has organized previous rainbow days – including the March 4, 2021 protest where they organized a lighting the Y in rainbow colors without university permission. When the University tried to protect their private property from unauthorized demonstrations on the March 2022 rainbow day, @colorthecampus put out an open letter stating “our civil disobedience has been exacerbated by an institution that claims loving and belonging in word, but hate and exclusion in deed.” Color the Campus also advertises “Mormon No More” from Hulu on their page.
[READ: The “Doctrine of Belonging” is Not Woke]
The OCE Instagram account expressed regret for sharing a post from @colorthecampus when posted in the Chronicle’s last #WOKELORE segment. It said, “After further review, we should not have shared from this particular account. An intern mistakenly assumed it was a BYU-approved event.” The account also claimed to have shared posts that “fall across the political spectrum.”
To see whether the account would share posts from across the political spectrum, the Chronicle requested that the upcoming March 31 Turning Point USA (TPUSA) event with political commentator, Amala Ekpunobi, be shared. The account read the message but did not respond.
The bio for the account reads, “BYU Civic Engagement is nonpartisan and neutral; sharing info does not imply endorsement.” This was added after the account was criticized for posting about rainbow day.
One person connected with the OCE is Natalie Whitlock. Whitlock’s personal Facebook account lists her working with the BYU Office of Civic Engagement (OCE).
She has also had previous positions managing media, communications, and content for other organizations. A September 1, 2022 story on the OCE Instagram account features a video of Whitlock inviting students to an event. She also posted on Facebook in February advertising the Civic Engagement Fair she helped plan at BYU.
A student who will be known as Gavin (for anonymity) believes the account is run by Natalie Whitlock. He noted that Whitlock and the OCE account both use the same incorrect spelling of his name when messaging him and post similar things. “An official BYU account should not be run by an individual who belittles and mocks students… After going to the department to discuss this behavior, that woman continued running the account,” Gavin told the Chronicle.
Whitlock has also tweeted out her distaste for TPUSA when someone apologized for calling it a white nationalist organization. She insinuated the organization was white nationalist saying, “sometimes you have to say it like it is.” She has also messaged the Chronicle in response to an advertisement for a previous TPUSA event saying that BYU “did not sponsor or support this garbage” because she did not want BYU associated with the organization.
I really respect you for apologizing and trying to be civil to the likes of Turning Point USA. They certainly don’t deserve it. Politics is far too nasty, but on the other hand, sometimes you have to say it like it is.— Natalie Whitlock (@nataliewhitlock) November 8, 2022
TPUSA at BYU chapter president, Tori Kimball, responded to this, in light of the event with Ekpunobi who is biracial, saying, “It goes without saying that Turning Point USA is not a white supremacist organization. TPUSA stands on upholding traditional values and freedom granted first by God and then the Constitution. We know we uphold similar base ideals as those which BYU were founded upon, this is why students are drawn to our group, especially in Provo.”
“We will continue to spread ideas of freedom of speech, thought, and belief for all people and hope the engagement office can stand with us in that,” she continued. TPUSA has tried to become a club multiple times, but BYU has refused to allow them on campus.
The OCE account has also advertised for Greens to Go, a start-up business, as recently as December of 2022. Whitlock herself has said it is run by her own family members.
While all this evidence has been gathered, the Chronicle has not been able to identify exactly who was using the account to share all the posts and comments cited in this particular report.
On February 27, the OCE account replied to a comment on a post by The Cougar Chronicle saying “respectfully, you have no idea what you are talking about.” The Chronicle reached out to the director of the OCE questioning if this was appropriate conduct for a BYU-branded account. The Chronicle did not receive a reply, but the comment was deleted the next day.
This is not the only time the OCE Instagram account has become combative. Gavin also shared with the Chronicle a conversation he had with the OCE Instagram account. The OCE initiated a conversation with Gavin replying to a story he shared about wearing masks. Gavin responded asking, “do I know the person who runs this account… do you know me in real life?” The account replied, “I am the person who runs this account… I know exactly who you are [Gavin]. The troll of all trolls [crazy face emoji].” When Gavin pressed the anonymous user to tell him who they were they responded, “hahahaha.”
Gavin told the Chronicle “[I’m frustrated] that an account under the official banner of BYU regularly endorses groups and messages contrary to the mission of the university (until now), while at the same time remaining silent every General Conference.”
Whitlock and the Office of Civic Engagement director have not returned a request for comment. The OCE Instagram Account only replied, “I’m not at liberty to respond :),” unsent this reply, and then deleted its previous reply to the #WOKELORE post.
Written by: Luke Hanson
Senior Contributor at The Cougar Chronicle
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints