CORAL GABLES, FL— University of Miami (UM) President Donna Shalala has permitted an official UM agent to deny recognition of a student organization that seeks to advance conservative philosophical ideas. UM takes the position that the campus chapter of the College Republicans speaks for all “conservatives.”
“The University of Miami has imposed awful restrictions on freedom of speech, association, and conscience. A place that should be a center of debate and discussion is behaving as if there were an official quota on political diversity and intellectual views,” said Thor L. Halvorssen, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
In late 2002, four female undergraduates at UM tried to form Advocates for Conservative Thought (ACT), dedicated to—in the words of its constitution—“the exposition and promotion of conservative principles and ideas in society.” To carry out its mission, it would sponsor lectures and distribute literature. ACT applied for approval to the Committee on Student Organizations (COSO), which the university president has authorized to act officially in these matters. ACT was rejected in November and December of 2002, and a third time, in writing, on January 14, 2003. Without COSO’s approval, ACT may not use vital university facilities and resources, may not be listed on the website for approved student groups or in the student handbook (from which students choose their activities), and may not—to quote from the COSO website—“promote the organization and its activities on campus.”
COSO repeatedly informed ACT members that there was already one conservative voice on the campus—the College Republicans—and already one political forum—the Council for Democracy—and that ACT would merely replicate such groups. These groups, however, stand in striking contrast to ACT. The College Republicans promote the candidates and policies of the Republican Party (some of ACT’s founders are registered Democrats who consider themselves conservatives). The Council for Democracy provides an explicitly neutral forum for debate.
“We have spent six months trying to establish our group,” said Sarah Canale, a first-year student who is co-president of ACT. “We have submitted four different versions of the constitution, but they are never satisfied. Why will the administration not let us organize on our own terms?”
On April 7, 2003, FIRE wrote to President Shalala, requesting that UM avoid public embarrassment by taking self-corrective measures: “To restrict freedom of association and freedom of speech is to create a stifled and intellectually bereft environment—the very antithesis of liberal learning. Surely, this does not describe your vision for the University of Miami.”
FIRE alerted Shalala to “the apparent double standard that COSO uses, as agent for UM, in its evaluation of applications for approval. The standard used to evaluate ACT’s constitution is far more stringent than that used for the evaluation of virtually all other groups.” FIRE pointed out that COSO sponsors six groups that could be considered liberal in philosophy: “UM recognizes, rightly, that ‘liberal’ does not mean ‘Democrat’—that there is a wide spectrum of views, philosophies, and attitudes that could be called ‘liberal.’ Why, then, does your institution believe that ‘conservative’ necessarily means ‘Republican’?” Indeed, FIRE explained, UM recognized both Earth Alert and Animal Allies; both the Islamic Society and the Muslim Students Organization; both Free Tibet and Amnesty International. It also recognized multiple black student groups, multiple Caribbean student groups, multiple Latin American and Hispanic student groups, and multiple Asian student groups. Why not ACT?
Days after the letter to President Shalala, an administrator informed FIRE that the matter was “under consideration.” Then, on April 21, 2003, Cynthia Chapel, administrative advisor to COSO, wrote to FIRE that it was her hope “that we can resolve this matter in a mutually satisfactory manner.” On April 22, however, COSO held another hearing for ACT’s leaders, interrogating them on why they had contacted FIRE. ACT revised its constitution yet again and waited for a response. On April 27, COSO advisor Cynthia Chapel told ACT it was not approved but could try again in the fall—with no guarantee of success.
“It’s simply absurd,” said Andrea Kiser, ACT co-president. “Our goal is to promote conservative ideas and to infuse the campus with political passion. Why is it so difficult for the University of Miami simply to let us be?”
“The University of Miami is perpetuating an injustice,” said FIRE’s Halvorssen. “President Shalala’s inaction is a scandal. We will stand by these students, as we would stand by any group of students suffering unequal treatment for wishing to express their ideas.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Miami and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.