FIRE letter to DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider, September 30, 2010

By September 30, 2010

September 30, 2010

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
Office of the President
DePaul University
55 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60604

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (312-362-7577)

Dear President Holtschneider:

As you might recall from our letter to you in 2006, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, due process, legal equality, voluntary association, freedom of speech, and academic freedom on our nation’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

I write today because FIRE is deeply concerned about the threat to freedom of speech and freedom of association posed by DePaul University’s refusal to grant official recognition to a proposed student group because of the group’s political message.

FIRE last wrote you in February of 2006 to protest a charge of “harassment” filed against a conservative student group after the group held an “affirmative action bake sale” protest on campus. After FIRE drew public attention to the threat of disciplinary action, the harassment charge was dropped. Nevertheless, DePaul found the group at fault for failing to disclose in advance that the bake sale would be used to protest affirmative action. Your administration’s disappointing choice to keep prosecuting the student group failed to honor DePaul’s explicit commitment to freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time DePaul has ignored its own promises of freedom of expression. As you should remember, FIRE wrote you regarding two additional incidents in 2005 and 2006. One of these involved DePaul’s censorship of DePaul’s College Republicans group, which wished to protest a campus appearance by Ward Churchill, and the other involved the suspension of Professor Thomas Klocek without a hearing after he engaged in a heated, out-of-class debate with students at a student activities fair. Each of these three incidents demonstrated that DePaul did not take seriously the guarantees of free expression it had made to students and faculty members. Regrettably, it seems that little has changed.

This is our understanding of the facts in the present case; please correct us if you believe we are in error.

DePaul’s Office of Student Life (OSL) oversees DePaul’s student organization structure, which recognizes over 225 student organizations comprised of more than 2,000 students. The DePaul Student Organization Guide states that DePaul “encourages students to organize and participate in group activities intended to broaden the scope of general learning, extend knowledge of specialized areas or to serve their professional, entertainment, honorary, departmental, cultural, spiritual, political, service or recreational interests, consistent with the educational goals and purposes of the university.” One category of student organizations recognized by OSL is “Activist/Political” groups. According to OSL’s website, Activist/Political groups “engage in civic issues, relating to or dealing with the structure or affairs of government, politics, or the state; and/or are influenced by partisan interests.”

In the spring of 2010, DePaul student Jeff Kramer and several of his fellow students submitted an application for official recognition of a proposed “Activist/Political” group, Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. Kramer followed the registration process and satisfied all requirements for official recognition as outlined in the DePaul Student Organization Guide. On April 15, Kramer wrote Franco Sambatoro, Office Manager for OSL, to inquire about the status of his application. Joshua M. Williams, Program Coordinator for Student Organizations, responded to Kramer’s inquiry, advising him that he would have to meet with Suzanne Kilgannon, Director of Student Life. According to Kramer, when he met with Kilgannon at the end of April, she indicated that the group would be recognized and supplied him with paperwork for the new group.

Despite the fact that the DePaul Student Organization Guide states that “Student Life will provide your student organization an update within five business days,” OSL did not provide Kramer with an update regarding his application. Kramer contacted OSL several times via both e-mail and visits to the OSL offices, but he did not receive a response.

On September 15, 2010, Kramer finally received an e-mail from Kilgannon denying his application. This denial of official recognition was apparently issued at the behest of Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle. Kilgannon wrote:

Jeff

My apologies for such an extended wait regarding your interest in starting a club. 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.

I hope you will continue your involvement in other ways!

Suzanne

To be clear: DePaul’s denial of recognition to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform violates the explicit promises of freedom of inquiry and freedom of association that the university makes to its students. Further, while DePaul is a private university and thus is not bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free association, a university that takes seriously the intellectual and social development of its students and supports a true marketplace of ideas on campus should grant students the basic associative rights they would enjoy at a public university or in society at large.

FIRE recognizes and respects the right of private institutions like DePaul to define their identities. However, denying Students for Cannabis Policy Reform recognition on the basis of the group’s viewpoint contradicts DePaul’s own promises to its students. DePaul’s “Guiding Principles on Speech and Expression” promise:

DePaul is committed to fostering a community that welcomes open discourse. We believe that intellectual inquiry is enriched immeasurably by robust debate and exposure to differing points of view. By remaining open to a broad range of ideas and opinions, we foster mutual understanding, test our beliefs and create the most effective conditions for seeking knowledge.

The Principles further state that “DePaul affirms the right of speakers to voice their viewpoints, even at the risk of controversy” and that “DePaul is dedicated to engaging diligently and proactively in discussions concerning the many difficult issues raised by speech and expression in a university community with diverse beliefs and values.” It is impossible to reconcile these admirable commitments with DePaul’s conduct here.

In addition, DePaul offers students broad pledges of free expression and association in DePaul’s Student Handbook. In the Handbook, the Code of Student Responsibility unequivocally grants students the right to form political associations:

Students have the right to their own ideas, beliefs and political associations. Students have the right to ask questions and express their opinions without affecting their academic evaluations, as long as such do not interfere with the normal operations of their classes or infringe on the rights of other students in their classes.

In denying recognition to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform, DePaul has entirely broken its promises.

Furthermore, it is difficult to understand how granting recognition to an independent student group would send “an institutional message” that the university is “not prepared to manage.” In fact, the university has already sent the institutional message that a wide variety of viewpoints, beliefs, and values are tolerated at DePaul. It is common knowledge that recognizing a student organization does not in any way endorse the group’s message or political views, but merely affirms that group’s right to exist on an equal basis with other recognized groups.

DePaul must recognize that the expression of a student organization does not constitute an act of expression by the university itself. Or does Doyle mean to suggest that the university’s recognition of 225 student groups means that each of these groups somehow speaks for the university? If so, the resulting cacophony would render DePaul’s “institutional message” utterly incomprehensible and contradictory. Again, if Doyle’s implication is that the mere act of recognition expresses an institutional message, DePaul should realize that denying recognition to a student group on the basis of its viewpoint sends a much louder and far more telling message about the university’s lack of commitment to the principles of free expression and free inquiry that undergird a liberal education.

FIRE urges you to act immediately to correct this injustice by honoring DePaul’s promises of freedom of association and freedom of expression and granting recognition to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. Without the right to band together with others for a common cause, freedom of association means nothing.

FIRE hopes that this matter can be resolved amicably and swiftly, with fairness, common sense, and respect for the principle of free association. We are, however, committed to using all of our resources to seeing this matter through to a just and moral conclusion. We request a response by October 14, 2010.

Sincerely,

Will Creeley
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

cc:

James R. Doyle, Vice President for Student Affairs
Suzanne Kilgannon, Director of Student Life
Joshua M. Williams, Program Coordinator for Student Organizations
Franco Sambatoro, Office Manager, Office of Student Life

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