Discriminatory Treatment of Student Organizations at DePaul University

By October 18, 2010

DePaul University is engaging in unjust and deceptive viewpoint discrimination against student organizations despite its promise to support "robust debate and exposure to differing points of view." After DePaul manipulated its student organization policy to deny equal treatment to Students for Cannabis Policy Reforma point of view the university evidently disfavorsthe group came to FIRE for help, but DePaul has refused to back down from its discriminatory policy.

As Greg said in today’s press release, "DePaul University promises student groups freedom of expression, but instead delivers censorship. If DePaul wants its guarantees of free inquiry and debate to be taken seriously, it should immediately stop tilting the playing field against certain ideas."

In the spring of 2010, DePaul student Jeff Kramer and fellow students submitted an application for official recognition of their group, Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. Official recognition gives a group access to 17 different benefits including "Involvement Fair Participation," posting pre-approved flyers of certain types on designated bulletin boards, and room reservation privileges. Full "registration" grants a group two additional benefits, including access to Student Activity Fee funding.

DePaul held up Kramer’s application for several months. Finally, on September 15, 2010, Director of Student Life Suzanne Kilgannon denied recognition to the group, stating, "Despite our best arguments, our vice president feels very strongly that having an approved group on campus would send an institutional message that he believes we are not prepared to manage."

FIRE wrote DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider on September 30. Our letter pointed out that DePaul’s discrimination violated its own promises of free speech in its Student Handbook, which states: "Students have the right to their own ideas, beliefs and political associations." We also noted that recognizing a group "does not constitute an act of expression by the university itself"particularly since the university already recognizes over 200 student groups with conflicting missions. These include the LGBTQA activist group Act Out, the "radical" Activist Student Union, the Catholic Student Union, DePaul College Republicans, DePaul Conservative Alliance, DePaul Democrats, Feminist Front, Hillel, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Students for the Advancement of Gender Awareness, and many more.

DePaul Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle responded to FIRE’s letter on October 7. He defended DePaul’s discrimination, arguing that recognized student organizations must "be congruent with our institutional goals regarding the health and well-being of our students." Doyle argued that DePaul based its decision on "[c]onsiderable research indicat[ing] that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations."

In addition to ignoring DePaul’s promises of free expression to students, Doyle’s response misconstrues the aim of Kramer’s group. Students for Cannabis Policy Reform’s stated purpose is to educate legislators and the general public about perceived flaws in current cannabis policy, not to use the drug. Specifically, the group’s mission is "to lobby and influence, by legal means, local representatives and lawmakers to reform the laws and policies regarding the Cannabis Sativa plant. Emphasis will also be put on informing the public of the advantages or benefits of such policy reform." Doyle’s contention that the group’s proposed activities would somehow endanger "the health and well-being of our students" or lead to "unhealthy" decision-making is unfounded.

DePaul thus has laid bare the heart of the free speech problem at so many universitiesit is more interested in "managing" its "message" than in providing a true marketplace of ideas. Although DePaul is a private university, it has promised free speech to its students. But speech is not free when student organizations with unapproved views cannot get equal treatment on campus, and when student organizations must live in fear of derecognition if they cross an unspecified line that vaguely relates to DePaul’s views about advocating for ideas relating to "healthy decision-making."

Whatever one thinks about drug policy reform, everyone can agree that DePaul is far from the free university it pretends to be. DePaul also maintains highly restrictive, content-based policies for official approval of flyers and handbills and for restricting the content of student organization websites. In fact, DePaul places so many restrictions on the expression of student organizations that its supposed commitment to free speech on campus strains credulity.

That’s not all. In 2006, DePaul shut down a student organization’s "affirmative action bake sale" on campus and then charged the students with "harassment." This followed DePaul’s 2005 dismissal of a professor for arguing with Palestinian students as well as DePaul’s censorship of students’ peaceful protest of controversial scholar Ward Churchill according to a vague ban on "propaganda."

You can contact President Holtschneider to let him know what you think at 312-362-8000 or dholtsch@depaul.edu, or you can use FIRE’s Take Action module to tell DePaul University to stop discriminating against student groups.

Schools: DePaul University Cases: DePaul University: Discrimination against Student Organization