June 16, 2024

Conservative student groups say process for official recognition risks viewpoint discrimination

Author: Greta Anderson
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Syracuse University junior Justine Murray was angry when she and other students were denied permission to form a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, or YAF, on Syracuse’s campus.

The student panel that rejected the bid for YAF to be formally recognized made clear that it disagreed with the philosophy of the self-described “ideologically conservative youth activism organization.”

“Requiring students to agree in the superiority of the U.S. Constitution is exclusionary to international students and other individuals,” said the February 2019 rejection email from the majority-student panel authorized to review and approve or decline student organizations seeking to be officially registered at Syracuse. “The Board recognizes that the parent organization, Young America’s Foundation, has demonstrated a pattern of past practice of supporting discourse via printed materials and/or other means that are deemed inflammatory.”

It wasn’t the first time that politically conservative students felt unfairly sidelined on campus. Murray said they often feel like their ideas are shut down by peers and professors, and the denial of YAF’s application to become an official student organization was a clear example.

Although the organization was subsequently granted registered status in September 2019 after a second attempt, conservative students like Murray and free speech advocates are increasingly voicing their opposition to what they consider “viewpoint discrimination” in the approval process for student organizations to be formally recognized on campus.

“We’re another group for conservatives … to freely express their views without feeling like they have to stay quiet, without feeling like they are being judged for it,” said Murray, who is now chairwoman of the YAF chapter at Syracuse. “We really shouldn’t be making decisions on whether groups can be on campus based on if we agree with their viewpoints or not. All chapters and all people should be able to voice their views, even if you think it’s hateful or so-called hate speech.”

At institutions with strong student government associations, the authority to approve or deny official status to organizations lies with student leaders, said Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, or ASGA, which represents 1,500 student government associations across the country​. Being officially registered not only grants organizations formal recognition and even legitimacy in the eyes of other students, but on some campuses it can also guarantee the organizations benefits such as the ability to reserve space to host speakers and hold events or post advertisements or messages on campus, and in some cases, funding from student activities and service fees paid to the colleges.

“There are so many free market and independent outlets for conservatives to express their views … given that the administration allows these groups to happen,” said Charlie Copeland, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or ISI. The institute aims to add conservative and libertarian thinking into higher education by connecting students to professors and educational materials that reflect those ideologies.

Anecdotes of rejection provided by chapters of national conservative student groups such as Turning Point USA, Young Americans for Freedom and ISI have drawn the attention of media and free speech advocates. The regularity with which official recognition or registration of these groups are voted down is widely unknown, Oxendine said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, commonly known as FIRE, collects examples of student organizations that are shot down by either student leaders or administrators.

“Universities can make clear in advance that when the student government is given the authority to approve it, they have to do it with content-neutral decision making,” said Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program. “When it comes to freedom of expression, the university should be facilitating, and there shouldn’t be examples of these groups overcoming these burdens.”

FIRE has recently focused on a chapter of Turning Point USA, or TPUSA, at the University of Scranton, a Catholic liberal arts institution in Scranton, Pa. The chapter was denied a charter by members of the student senate after TPUSA failed to receive a required two-thirds majority vote of approval in October 2019. Before the chapter’s application hearing, Fahad Ashraf, president of the student government, recused himself from the process because of a comment he’d made on social media suggesting he would veto the senate’s vote if TPUSA Scranton was approved, according to minutes from the Oct. 4 meeting.

The student senate members questioned the goals and viewpoints associated with TPUSA’s national organization, including its support for President Donald Trump, and debated whether a group that sells merchandise depicting firearms should be affiliated with Scranton, according to the meeting minutes.

“If I was in your shoes, I would go back to the drawing board,” Student Senator Aaron Asiedu-Wiafe said. “Associating yourself with this club is just going to be too stigmatizing.”

Noah Kraft, treasurer of TPUSA Scranton, called the outcome of the hearing “an unfair decision based on bias” and said other organizations have not received the same type of scrutiny.

“I understand why they have that power, but it doesn’t mix well with people having their own views and bias,” Kraft said. “The decision they made on our charter kind of shows that they aren’t representing the students.”

While the student government’s decision not to charter the chapter at Scranton did turn some students away from joining the group, it retained 25 to 30 interested members, Kraft said. The Scranton chapter continues to be officially recognized by TPUSA’s national headquarters.

The student senate has the authority and responsibility to make charter recommendations, Robert Davis Jr., the University of Scranton’s vice president for student life, said in a Nov. 26 letter to FIRE responding to calls for university administrators to overturn the decision.

Scranton is “dedicated to the freedom of inquiry and personal development fundamental to the growth in wisdom and integrity of all who share its life,” a university spokesperson said in a statement.

“The proposal to establish a Scranton Chapter of Turning Point USA did not receive the required two-thirds majority vote and, as a result, was not chartered as a club,” the statement said.

Steinbaugh​ said the mishandling of the TPUSA chapter’s application should serve as a learning opportunity for student leaders, who he says should have authority over student affairs decisions. But if the student government does not correct its mistakes, the university should step in to uphold its policy, which states, “freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of the individual must be preserved,” he said.

Oxendine said the ASGA helps student government leaders attain such authority, granted by the colleges and universities, and provides them with resources and training. But most student governments are not at that level and struggle to even get the student body to vote in student elections and attend SGA events on campus, he said. These weaker student government organizations are not “up to the task” of evaluating student organization applications, he said.

Oxendine said viewpoint neutrality should be a priority of the few student governments given authority over student organizations on campus, and there are some examples of student leaders failing to meet that priority.

“But it’s probably not happening at a level that some people think,” he said.

And it’s not only happening to conservative student groups, Steinbaugh said. A student at Truman State University, a public university in Kirksville, Mo., applied in December to form a club advocating for animal rights and was denied by a panel made up of students employed by the university’s student life department and some student government members. The denial was based on the club’s association with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the “reputational” and “emotional” risk affiliating with the national organization could pose to students.

In response to criticism about the denial of the animal-rights club, Truman State has “undertaken a review and remission of that process” for approving official student organizations, said Janna Stoskopf, vice president for student affairs.​ She would not comment further on the specifics of the plans to revise the process.

“It is not university staff members engaged with this process. They happen to be student employees, but it is a student process,” Stoskopf said. “That’s an important distinction in my mind … From the student affairs perspective, it’s best to involve students in the processes that involve students.”

The Animal Alliance has since been “granted full charter status” with Truman State, Stoskopf said.

Steinbaugh, the FIRE director, said college administrators have appropriately overruled student government decisions when his organizations has gotten involved in such cases. He also said it’s easier to fight such decisions at public institutions like Truman State, where First Amendment protections under the U.S. Constitution are well established.

“They recognize that sometimes students will make mistakes, and they’ll be happy to try to make it a learning experience,” Steinbaugh said. “In some cases where the student government is not going to correct its own mistakes, the administration will intervene. On the other hand, you have schools like Scranton, who are unwilling to explain or defend their mistakes.”

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