Student Rights Group Recognized at Rogers State University, but Deficiencies in Recognition Process Remain

By October 12, 2010

After a number of First Amendment hiccups, and an intervention from FIRE, the Organization for Advocating the Rights of Students (OARS) is now recognized at Oklahoma’s Rogers State University (RSU). Uncertainty remains, however, about the fairness of the processes by which student groups obtain recognition at RSU.

FIRE was first contacted by OARS President Renee Morse-Heenan in August as OARS was confronted with a series of constitutionally questionable requirements for becoming a registered student organization recognized by RSU. Hoping to expedite the process so that OARS could begin recruiting members, Morse-Heenan asked RSU what further steps lay in the path of OARS’ recognition process; she was told by RSU Coordinator of Student Activities Lynn Brown that the RSU Student Government Association must "vote and approve the organization."

Morse-Heenan’s worries were compounded a couple of days later when Brown, in an e-mail to OARS faculty advisor Larry Green, explained her office’s rationale for rejecting a flyer OARS planned to circulate. In an August 11 e-mail to Green, Brown wrote:

In accordance with posting policies, we have the right to limit the time, location,  and the manner in which they are distributed. We also have the right to regulate speech as long as it is rational and not content specific (eg:  we can’t tell Muslims they can’t post flyers because we aren’t Muslim).

For all distribution and/or postings of materials, they must be approved by Student Affairs prior to distribution or posting. The current flyer, [sic] will not be approved since the information is not correct.  For example, the first bullet on the flyer states "You have the right to post and distribute flyers". This is not a correct statement, flyers need to be approved through student affairs in order to post and distribute them.

Finally, in an August 25 e-mail to Morse-Heenan, Brown offered this troubling explanation for why RSU sought to have administrative oversightspecifically, through RSU’s public relations departmentover the Facebook and other social media accounts of RSU student groups:

Ideally, PR would like to be the creator of all Facebook accounts so that as students come and go they can add/remove administrators accordingly. Also, this would prevent the creation of multiple accounts for the same organization.

The specific requirements and policies/procedures for creating social media accounts (ie:  Facebook, twitter, myspace, etc.) [sic], that contain the name of the university in any format, are being added to the Student Activities Handbook. The revised handbook will be available soon. 

Brown’s statements threaten the integrity of OARS (and by association all current and future student groups) in several ways.

First, Brown’ statement that the fate of OARS’ recognition lies in the hands of a vote from the SGA opens student groups up to unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination unless the SGA restricts itself to using viewpoint-neutral criteria to evaluate the organization. If student representatives are handed discretionary power to recognize, or not to recognize, every student group on campus, it is quite foreseeable that they may discriminate against groups espousing unpopular or minority views based on their personal feelings. (It would be just as bad if the SGA consisted entirely of people with unpopular views and that therefore groups with more popular messages couldn’t get recognition.) As the arbiter of group recognition, SGA is acting as an arm of RSU, and is thus bound by the First Amendment, which obliges it to use only objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria in its decisions. If OARS meets all the stated requirements for recognition, SGA must vote to approve it.

Regarding Brown’s August 11 e-mail, her statement that flyers may be rejected because their information is "not correct" fortunately is not a statement of RSU policy, but a misstatement. As RSU’s Student Code of Responsibilities and Conduct explains in contravention to Brown:

A student has the right to establish and/or disseminate publications free from any censorship or other official action controlling editorial policy on content.

[...]

Orderly picketing and other forms of peaceful expression are permitted in public places on University premises so long as there is neither interference with ingress or egress at University facilities, interruption of classes, damage to property, or disruption of the operation of the University, nor blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic, unless such traffic is diverted by previous arrangement with the Campus Police.

So, according to actual policy and contra Brown, RSU students shouldn’t have to worry that their flyers will be deemed "incorrect" and subjected to prior approval. And it should be obvious, of course, that people are free to be wrong and to expose themselves to ridicule as a result. As the Supreme Court stated in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, "erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive." The OARS flyer was correct to state that, indeed, "You have the right to post and distribute flyers."

Finally, the hopelessness of RSU trying to track (much less control) the social media accounts of every student organization on campus should be self-evident. Aside from being a massive waste of time, such a requirement simply cannot be constitutionally justified as a means of exerting control over the RSU name and image. As we explained to RSU (and as we’ve similarly explained to UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara),

Preventing "multiple [Facebook] accounts for the same [student] organization," as stated by Brown, is far from a substantial interest within the purview of RSU. Furthermore, any restriction on "social media accounts … that contain the name of the university in any format" must be narrowly tailored to serve a substantial governmental interest, such as ensuring that a group does not falsely pretend to be speaking in the university’s name and does not use the university’s name for commercial purposes. The vast majority of possible social media accounts that use RSU’s name in any format, however, have no commercial purpose and do not tend to confuse or mislead readers into believing that they are officially sanctioned or endorsed by the university.

Within a few weeks of sending a letter of concern to RSU President Larry Rice, FIRE was notified that OARS had finally received recognition. Does this wash away all of the concerns in our letter? Not quite. For one, the possibility remains that other groups could fall victim to viewpoint discrimination, especially if SGA officials aren’t clear on the criteria required for recognizing student organizations. For another, RSU has not addressed the matter of administrative control over student group social media sites. Though Brown’s August 25 e-mail states that this planned change will soon be reflected in RSU’s Student Activities Handbook, I haven’t seen it on RSU’s website yet, and exactly how (or whether) RSU will follow through on its intent still remains to be seen.

For now, though, at least OARS is free to pursue its mission of protecting student rights on campus. Judging from the misadventures of OARS’ registration process, the RSU community certainly could use its help.

Schools: Rogers State University Cases: Rogers State University: First Amendment Violations