The Shifting Sands of DePaul University’s Censorship of Student Group

By March 4, 2011

DePaul University Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle has played no small role in putting DePaul on our recent list of the "12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech," featured at The Huffington Post. He secured DePaul’s spot not only by denying recognition to the student group Students for Cannabis Policy Reform (SCPR)in defiance of DePaul’s promises of free speech and freedom of associationbut also by continuously shifting his rationale for doing do.

Briefly, let’s recount Doyle’s history with SCPR.

Following months of delays in processing the group’s application, Director of Student Life Suzanne Kilgannon told SCPR via e-mail on September 15, 2010, that Doyle was uncomfortable with any possible appearance of university support for the group’s efforts:

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.

That defense (if you can call it that) seemingly disappeared after FIRE wrote to DePaul on September 30, replaced with Doyle’s vague argument in his October 7, 2010, reply to FIRE that allowing drug use (quite a distortion of the group’s mission, by the way) would contribute to poor "decision-making" among students:

The University plays a role in educating students about safe decision-making around issues of health and wellness. Considerable research indicates that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations. Given the above, the University determined that recognizing the "Students for Cannabis Policy Reform Group" as a DePaul student organization would not be congruent with our institutional goals regarding the health and well-being of our students

Most recently, in a February 28, 2011, article in the student newspaper The DePaulia, Doyle backs away from this nebulous charge. Once again, he distorts SCPR’s goals and confirms that the group is being discriminated against on the basis of its viewpoint, but nonetheless claims that free speech is alive and well at DePaul.

More recently, FIRE accused DePaul of "denying recognition to the student group, Students for Cannabis Policy Reform – first saying that the university wasn’t ready to "manage" the group’s message, then saying that allowing the group on campus might promote poor decision-making in matters of student health," according Lukianoff’s article. DePaul’s Vice President of student affairs, James Doyle, argues this, saying "My issue was advocating a group on campus that was interested in legalization of the drug. I would, however, fully support a program for open discussion and debate on campus, and that is the main difference."

[Emphases mine in each quote.]

This most recent statement of Doyle’s is a particular gem: Doyle seems to have no issue with the inherent contradiction between welcoming a "program for open discussion and debate" and explicitly stating that such possibilities are closed to groups "interested in legalization" of cannabis. In the sea of sometimes-contradictory explanations he’s offered, this is his most brazen endorsement of arbitrary viewpoint discrimination, and yet another sign that DePaul simply doesn’t take student rights seriously. (For the record, SCPR’s mission is to "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"a mission far more nuanced than Doyle’s simple invocation of "legalization.")

Doyle has a trap door, at least in his own mind, that lets him get out of this jam and allow the kind of blatant viewpoint discrimination SCPR has faced. The DePaulia notes:

Doyle goes on to reference the DePaul University guiding principles on speech and expression, and makes it clear that DePaul has strictly adhered to these guidelines. They are on the DePaul website, and clearly state: "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. No set of guiding principles or policies can ever do justice to the range and difficulty of these issues. These guiding principles, while not policy, are intended to serve as a framework for those ongoing and challenging discussions."

No doubt Doyle sees the "while not policy" qualifier as his get out of jail free card. Indeed, a few simple statements in favor of free speech and association aren’t sufficient for governing the interactions of the more than 200 student groups recognized at DePaul. (To this end, the student rights section of DePaul’s handbook opens with the statement that "[a]ny community of more than 20,000 people needs rules.") This is why, the same statement notes, these statements are intended to serve as a framework.

I think that my definition of "framework" in this sense would be the same as that of the average DePaul student: a certain set of principles they can reasonably expect DePaul to follow when considering a student group’s application for recognized status. Doyle evidently sees it as something different: a safety valve that gives him carte blanche to render DePaul’s numerous promises of free speech and association meaningless, as he sees fit. FIRE does not accept this interpretation, and neither should anyone at DePaul.

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