WASHINGTON, D.C., August 10, 2004�”The Catholic University of America (CUA) has denied official approval to a group of students wishing to open a campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Despite university policies that protect student freedoms of dissent and expression, CUA has argued that the existence of two other minority groups on campus make the group unnecessary.
David French, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which wrote to CUA on behalf of the students, said, “In its literature, CUA claims to respect and promote freedom of speech and the right of dissent on its campus. FIRE asks CUA to honor this promise to its students and to recognize the student chapter of the NAACP.”
CUA student William Jawando’s request to form a campus chapter of the NAACP was rejected in April 2003. At the time, the university justified this decision by saying that two existing organizations, the Black Organization of Students at the Catholic University of America (BOSACUA) and Minority Voices, would make the goals of an NAACP chapter redundant. Victor Nakas, CUA spokesperson, told the Associated Press that Jawando “did not demonstrate, in the view of university officials…that this chapter of the NAACP would fill a need that isn’t already being met by organizations in existence.”
CUA’s claim cannot withstand scrutiny. Jawando’s goals in starting a NAACP chapter are explicitly political and are centered on civil rights, as he wants to engage in voter education and registration in advance of November’s presidential election. In contrast, BOSACUA’s entry on CUA’s website lists the organization’s purpose as “promot[ing] conscious cultural awareness and foster[ing] community,” while the goal of Minority Voices is to “bring unity and foster diversity among minority organizations at Catholic University of America.” Neither organization lists political or civil rights activism as one of its purposes.
“To suggest that a civil rights student group is unwelcome on campus�”or that a civil rights group by virtue of its mission is “black” when in fact the NAACP is interracial�”and that other groups are already concerned with ‘minority issues’ reveals a very limited vision of individuality and political diversity,” pointed out Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “It is telling that the students themselves, who obviously had opportunities to join the other groups, did not believe that an NAACP chapter would be redundant.”
CUA also objected to the NAACP’s pro-choice stance, saying that student groups are not allowed to advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion. In response to this concern, Jawando has assured CUA that the campus chapter of the NAACP will not address the issue. In addition, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has told the Associated Press that the organization does not have a formal position on abortion. CUA’s publicly-expressed requirement that student organizations not advocate a pro-choice position also appears to contradict CUA’s own Guidelines on Freedom of Expression and Dissent, found in the Student Handbook. These guidelines state: “Freedom of expression and dissent is protected by university policy…. This university acknowledges that, by common understanding, a university fosters and protects the rights of individuals to express themselves even in a dissenting mode.”
“CUA’s denial of recognition to the NAACP does not reflect the promises made to students in its Student Handbook,” said Lukianoff. “A student reading this policy would certainly believe he or she had the right to freely advocate any position on an issue.”
Adding to the confusion, CUA has recognized at least one other student group that is affiliated with a pro-choice national organization�”the College Democrats. “It is clear that the university understands that recognizing a student group does not mean endorsing all of that group’s policies; what is not clear is why CUA has forgotten this principle in its treatment of William Jawando and the NAACP,” said Lukianoff.
On June 30, 2004, FIRE wrote to the Rev. David M. O’Connell, CUA’s president, to point out the problematic aspects of CUA’s decision to reject the NAACP and to ask the university to live up to its own promises of freedom of expression. FIRE reminded President O’Connell that “[t]o restrict freedom of association and freedom of speech is to risk stifling the free and open flow of ideas upon which higher education relies.” Read FIRE’s letter to CUA below. CUA quickly responded with a letter saying that the university will not revisit the issue until the fall, and that the ultimate decision will not be made “in the court of public opinion or as a knee jerk reaction to pressure or threats from those who have little or no experience of or little or no regard for The Catholic University of America and its mission.”
CUA’s situation resembles that of an earlier FIRE case at the University of Miami (Florida), in which that private university declined to recognize the Advocates for Conservative Thought student group on the basis that the College Republicans were already recognized on campus. When FIRE brought the situation to the attention of the public, university president Donna Shalala quickly reversed Miami’s decision. Read about the Miami case here.
FIRE’s French observed, “CUA’s reaction to our letter is unfortunate. We merely requested that the university live up to its own promises to its students and apply its regulations in a consistent manner. While CUA may claim that the ‘court of public opinion’ does not matter, the university and its students will certainly be harmed if it becomes known as a place where freedom of expression is not fully respected and where its own policies are not honored.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473, firstname.lastname@example.org
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Rev. David M. O’Connell, President, Catholic University of America: 202-319-5100; firstname.lastname@example.org
FIRE’s Letter to CUA, PDF, 212.6 KB