Letter from FIRE to Dixie State President Stephen D. Nadauld

By on August 19, 2013

August 19, 2013

Stephen D. Nadauld
Office of the President
Dixie State University
225 South 700 East
St. George, Utah 84770

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (435-656-4001)

Dear President Nadauld:

As you can see from the list of our Directors and Board of Advisors, 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, freedom of association, religious liberty, and freedom of speech on America’s college campuses. Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is concerned about the threat to free association and free assembly posed by Dixie State University’s (Dixie State’s) statement that it will deny recognition to the Phi Beta Pi student social organization simply because of the club’s use of Greek letters in its name. Such a restriction violates the First Amendment, which Dixie State is both legally and morally bound to uphold.

This is our understanding of the facts. Please inform us if you believe we are in error.

In mid-November 2012, Dixie State student Indigo Klabanoff met with Dean of Students Del Beatty to discuss the possibility of forming a sorority on campus. According to Klabanoff, Beatty explained that concerns about Dixie State’s reputation had led to an administrative ban recognition of such groups. Beatty also cited an October 19, 2012, email from your office, which stated (among other things) your concern that “the introduction of Greek life on campus implies a ‘party’ atmosphere.” The October 19 email further states, “Most national fraternities and sororities require a letter of acceptance from the Institutional President and the Board of Trustees,” which Dixie State would not provide. Beatty stated at this meeting that Klabanoff would likely face opposition from the administration should she move forward with her plans.

On March 21, 2013, just a few weeks after Dixie State was formally recognized as a state university by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Klabanoff wrote to Beatty, arguing that this transition represented a new opportunity for the formation of a Greek club on campus. In response, Beatty warned Klabanoff that the club would be a “tough sale” because of administrative concern over Dixie State’s “‘party school’ image.”

Nonetheless, Klabanoff informed Beatty in a May 30, 2013, email that she would be submitting a formal application for recognition for a “local chapter” of a sorority identified by Greek letters and advertising the new club with flyers on campus. In his response, Beatty informed Klabanoff, “[W]e will not be allowing you to distribute flyers or charter a sorority at DSU.” Beatty then urged Klabanoff to meet with you regarding her application and the status of fraternities and sororities on campus. Klabanoff agreed to meet with you in mid-June to explain her club’s mission. During this meeting, according to Klabanoff, you once again highlighted the school’s apprehensions about the negative stigma of Greek life. When Klabanoff mentioned the existence of a university-recognized “Party Club” and its possible effect of Dixie State’s reputation, you reportedly explained that you couldn’t force the club to change its name.[1]

Despite this seeming double standard, Klabanoff and her fellow members submitted Phi Beta Pi’s application for recognition this June. Intended to be a local club unaffiliated with any national sorority, the group’s constitution lays out its status as a social organization committed to community service, stating: “Phi Beta Pi sisters work hand in hand in the community, and take the motto, ‘service above self’ to a higher standard.” The group states that it has followed each step of the club application process, meeting the school’s required ten-member minimum, drawing up a complete constitution, and contacting a faculty member to serve as its advisor.

Members were scheduled to present the club for approval before the Inter Club Council (ICC) on August 12. On July 25, Klabanoff emailed your office, Beatty, and Director of Student Involvement & Leadership Jordon Sharp to confirm the date of the hearing. Sharp responded that day, warning Klabanoff, “the name Phi Beta Pi will not be approved” and explaining that students cannot “use Greek letters in our club names unless it is an honor society.” He wrote, “You can still do whatever you want as a club as long as it fits within the rules and bylaws of the Club Council and Dixie State, but in short you will not be approved with that name.” Klabanoff, writing in response, asked Sharp to provide “official documentation” concerning its policy against organizations with Greek letters in their names. Sharp directed her to a copy of the ICC bylaws, found as of today on Dixie State’s student life website at http://dixiestudentlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/DSC-ICC-Bylaw-April-2012.pdf. Klabanoff responded to Sharp on July 27, writing:

When I went the website yesterday, I bookmarked the ICC bylaws, which was this link: http://dixiestudentlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/DSC-ICC-Bylaw.pdf. However, the link that you sent, which is also on the website today, has an older date. My link said the document was updated in October 2012. [Y]our link said they were last updated in April 2012.

Sharp responded to Klabanoff later that day, confirming that Dixie State had altered its policies in direct response to Phi Beta Pi’s application for recognized status, writing in part:

We will change the date on the bylaw revision, that was an oversight; we did just add the new clarification this week due to this particular charter request. Having this discussion with you has been beneficial because we have been able to clarify Dixie’s position on Greeks. They have not been allowed on campus, but you are correct in the fact that there was no clear policy in the past, so we created one. The administration has made it absolutely clear that they are not going to allow sororities and fraternities at this time, and the club council is in agreement. Therefore, to alleviate any confusion moving forward, we laid out the Greek policy in the club bylaws, the club council voted on it this week, and it is now in the bylaws. You were asking for a clear policy and so we made it official, and I hope it is helpful.

Sharp further wrote:

Our administration will not allow [Greek organizations], and frankly there doesn’t even need to be a written policy, although we have created one for future clarification.  Any and everything you want to accomplish with a sorority we can do with a club on campus.  Please understand that your club request will be denied as it currently stands, ZERO EXCEPTIONS.  Come talk to us and we will assist you in forming a similar club that will produce similar outcomes as the sorority.

A separate July 23 email from Vice President of Clubs and Organizations Brandon Lewis confirms ICC’s intent to amend its bylaws to exclude Phi Beta Pi:

This is an issue that just came up. We will be updating our club bylaws and we need to put something in our bylaws on the matter of Greek Life. In the past we have had clubs want to start a fraternity and/or sorority. … We need to vote and put guidelines on the subject so we do not have issues arise in the future. Please vote on whether you agree with President Naduald’s [October 19, 2012] letter or if you don’t.

Regarding the chartering of student groups at Dixie State, the currently posted ICC bylaws state:

ARTICLE III. CHARTERING CLUBS AND STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS
Section A. Starting a Club or an Organization

[...]

3. Fraternities and Sororities:
a. National fraternities/sororities are not sanctioned by Dixie State University.
b. National fraternity/sorority charters require a letter of acceptance from the Institutional President and Board of Trustees. Currently the sponsorship of such organizations is not part of the Dixie State University mission, and the current leadership at this institution will not allow these charters.
c. No club at DSU is allowed to use the name of any national fraternity or sorority in their club name. Likewise, clubs are not permitted to use the Greek alphabet in their club name.[Emphasis added.]

Only “Honor Societies” are exempted from the prohibition on the use of Greek letters in club names.

After Klabanoff informed Dixie State that she had been in contact with FIRE, however, Dixie State abruptly cancelled Phi Beta Pi’s August 12 hearing and referred Klabanoff’s inquiries to an attorney for the university, apparently under the mistaken impression that Klabanoff had retained FIRE to act as Phi Beta Pi’s legal counsel. To be clear: FIRE is not representing the students involved in a legal capacity, and FIRE does not provide legal advice to students. Dixie State should be aware, however, that its continued promises to withhold recognition from Phi Beta Pi and its new policy prohibiting Greek letters by campus groups violate the university’s legal and moral obligations under the First Amendment.

That the First Amendment is fully binding on public universities such as Dixie State is settled law. SeeWidmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 268–69 (1981) (“With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities.”); Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (“[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.’”) (internal citation omitted).

In addition to violating basic principles of the First Amendment, by which Dixie State is legally bound, Dixie State’s decision to deny Phi Beta Pi’s recognition violates its own policies. Not only does Dixie State’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Code acknowledge students’ “constitutional and statutory rights and privileges,” it also explicitly endorses students’ right to “free and open discussion, inquiry, expression, and lawful assembly.” Further, the Code promises that “Students have a right … to form student organizations for any lawful purpose…,” giving Phi Beta Pi the clear right to exist on campus, provided it complies with Dixie State’s requirements for gaining recognition. Banning the use of Greek letters in a club’s name contravenes this explicit promise of free expression and assembly and significantly oversteps Dixie State’s constitutional authority. Additionally, Dixie State may not ban Phi Beta Pi from distributing flyers on campus regardless of whether it gains university recognition, as the right of Dixie State students to distribute flyers among the campus community is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment.

FIRE is aware that Dixie State’s duties under the First Amendment do not obligate it to maintain the apparatus of a full-fledged Greek system. Phi Beta Pi, however, is not requesting that Dixie State provide such an arrangement, nor is it connected to a national sorority or other service or philanthropic organization that would require one. Phi Beta Pi simply asks that Dixie State consider it for recognition as a social club on the merits of its application rather than on the basis of the choice of alphabet used in the group’s name. Indeed, Sharp’s comments to Klabanoff suggest that the university has no objection to Phi Beta Pi’s mission and planned activities, and objects only on the basis of the group’s use of Greek letters in its name. In his July 25 email to Klabanoff, for instance, Sharp states, “You can still do whatever you want as a club as long as it fits within the rules … but in short you will not be approved with that name.” Similarly, a July 27 email invited Klabanoff to “talk to us and we will assist you in forming a similar club that will produce similar outcomes as the sorority.”

Lastly, FIRE notes that Dixie State has specifically amended its policies for the purposes of precluding Phi Beta Pi from gaining recognition—an action that appears to target one specific group in bad faith. There is simply no authority by which Dixie State can constitutionally refuse to recognize an organization simply because of the group’s use of the Greek alphabet (or any other alphabet) in its name.

FIRE works toward preserving freedom of association for all students and student groups on college campuses nationwide because we understand that freedom of association is a crucial component of freedom of speech—one that has had substantial historical benefits. Underrepresented groups, for example, have relied on the protections of freedom of association in forging their identities and agendas for the advancement of their causes. This freedom necessarily begins with how a group chooses to identify itself. This right of self-identification is a cherished freedom—one that cannot be done away with by an eleventh-hour change in policy.

FIRE recognizes Dixie State University’s desire not to be seen as a “party” school, and the principles by which it declines at this time to establish chapters of national fraternities and sororities. The maintenance of this image, however, must be balanced with its students’ rights to freedom of expression and association in accordance with Dixie State’s legal and moral obligations under the First Amendment. FIRE asks that Dixie State promptly reject this unconstitutional restriction on the rights of its students to form clubs using Greek letters and to assemble in exercise of their First Amendment right to freedom of association. Dixie State must amend the ICC bylaws in accordance with the First Amendment and, if Phi Beta Pi meets all requirements for recognition, it must recognize the organization. Please spare Dixie State the embarrassment of a public fight against the Bill of Rights.

We request a response to this letter by September 9, 2013.

Sincerely,

Peter Bonilla
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

cc:
Del Beatty, Dean of Students
Jordon Sharp, Director of Student Involvement and Leadership
Brandon Lewis, Vice President of Clubs and Organizations


[1] This club’s information was posted on Dixie State’s student life page at http://dsusa.orgsync.com/show_profile/46858-the-organization-of-good-parties, though the link is not currently active.

Schools: Dixie State University Cases: Dixie State University: School Rejects Student Group Because Its Name Includes Greek Letters