FIRE Second Letter to DePaul University, November 17, 2010

By November 17, 2010

November 17, 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:

FIRE has received Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle’s October 7 response to our letter of September 30, 2010, (both enclosed) regarding DePaul University’s refusal to recognize the student group Students for Cannabis Policy Reform (SCPR). Both this decision and DePaul’s refusal to reverse it make a mockery of DePaul’s numerous promises of freedom of expression and freedom of association on which students rely when they matriculate at DePaul-and violate DePaul’s contractual promises of these fundamental liberties. DePaul’s contention that it can ignore its own published policies if it believes a group’s mission and activities would somehow be detrimental to students’ “health and well-being” cannot stand.

Doyle notes, as did FIRE’s letter, that DePaul is “committed to fostering a community that welcomes open discourse.” FIRE also quoted the promise made in DePaul’s Code of Student Responsibility that “[s]tudents have the right to their own ideas, beliefs and political opinions.” Yet, DePaul’s acknowledged viewpoint discrimination against Students for Cannabis Policy Reform renders such promises worthless.

First, granting official recognition to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform in no way threatens DePaul’s goal of “educating students about safe decision-making around issues of health and wellness.” In fact, granting SCPR recognition is far more likely to advance this interest by increasing the debate around cannabis policy and giving DePaul many new opportunities to express its views about health and wellness. Indeed, recognizing SCPR would accord with DePaul’s admirable statement that “intellectual inquiry is enriched immeasurably by robust debate and exposure to differing points of view.” By contrast, denying recognition to SCPR demonstrates unequivocally that DePaul’s paeans to the benefit of debate and dialogue are not worth the paper they are printed on.

It seems evident that DePaul has labored to find a reason to justify its continued discrimination against SCPR by vaguely arguing that “[c]onsiderable research indicates that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations.” Regardless of the veracity of this unsourced contention, Doyle’s declaration undermines any notion that DePaul is the marketplace of ideas it purports to be. By DePaul’s new, unpublished standard, all student organizations are at risk of losing recognition if they advocate for a policy that a DePaul administrator associates with some kind of harm.

Student organizations thus have many reasons for concern about their continued existence at DePaul. What is DePaul’s standard for truth that is conclusive and “considerable” enough to censor discussion of the subject? Five academic studies? Ten academic studies? One academic study from a DePaul-approved researcher? It should be obvious that such an unwritten rule cannot possibly be enforced consistently or objectively. As a result, DePaul’s decision not to recognize SCPR chills student expression at DePaul, for rational students will choose to avoid advocacy around controversial issues for fear of being shut down by the university. If DePaul students wanted to start a group opposing capital punishment, for example, would DePaul take action to research whether abolishing the death penalty might lead to a rise in unhealthy decision-making, such as violent crime?

Second, and just as indicative of an institutional lack of intellectual integrity, DePaul has completely misrepresented the express mission of Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. That mission is “to lobby and influence, by legal means, local representatives and lawmakers to reform the laws and policies regarding the Cannabis Sativa plant” and to “inform[] the public of the advantages or benefits of such policy reform.” Does DePaul really think that the point of this group is to encourage students to gather for the purpose of illegal drug use? DePaul’s regrettable logic would never pass constitutional muster at any public college, and it violates DePaul’s moral and contractual obligations to its students.

Third, Doyle nonchalantly excuses DePaul’s viewpoint-based discrimination against Students for Cannabis Policy Reform by stating, “there are myriad opportunities for students to gather together and express their views to the larger community.” Doyle suggests as alternatives “programming partnerships with other student organizations or academic departments, promotional tables with off-campus entities, or … engaging student media.” DePaul’s chilling effect, however, is likely to keep student organizations and academic departments from taking the risk of associating with SCPR. Furthermore, DePaul intentionally skews the marketplace of ideas on campus by withholding from SCPR the benefits that recognized student groups enjoy at DePaul, including room reservations for meetings and group events, mailboxes, and promotional privileges such as tabling and participation in involvement and recruitment fairs. SCPR presumably will not be listed on DePaul’s online listing of student organizations. By effectively treating the students desiring recognition as second-class citizens, guilty of advocating the “wrong” ideas, DePaul essentially renders SCPR a nonentity on campus, depriving it of crucial opportunities to express its message on an equal playing field in the marketplace of ideas.

Finally, as we stated in our September 30 letter, it is abundantly clear that the recognition of a student organization by a university does not imply-nor would any reasonable person mistake it as implying-the university’s institutional support of the group’s message. DePaul supports student organizations with a wide variety of religious and political perspectives. Just as no reasonable person would understand DePaul to have endorsed the Democratic Party platform by recognizing the College Democrats, nor to have endorsed a Republican candidate for elected office by dint of recognizing the College Republicans, so too does it strain credulity beyond the breaking point to argue here, as Doyle does, that merely recognizing Students for Cannabis Policy Reform might somehow constitute formal agreement with the group’s ideas. DePaul has no need, likewise, to worry that it would be seen as endorsing allegedly unhealthy student decision-making were DePaul to approve SCPR. Yet, DePaul’s defense of its discrimination against SCPR using fundamentally flawed arguments destroys the integrity of DePaul’s institutional principles.

Under these circumstances, DePaul cannot be said to offer free speech or free association in any meaningful sense. DePaul is free to set its own mission, but once it has made morally and legally binding promises of fundamental freedoms, it must fulfill them. FIRE asks again that DePaul University grant recognition to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. Please spare DePaul the further embarrassment of defending its decision to renege on its promises.

We ask for a response to this letter by December 6, 2010.

Sincerely,

 

Will Creeley
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

Enclosures

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
Most Reverend Thomas J. Curry, Chair, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend John C. Dunne, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Walter J. Edyvean, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Francis J. Kane, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend John C. Wester, Committee on Catholic Education, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Michael Galligan-Stierle, President and CEO, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities

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