Victory for Free Speech at Duke: Pro-Life Group’s Rights Restored

March 30, 2010

DURHAM, N.C., March 30, 2010Duke University has reversed a decision by its Women’s Center that prohibited the Duke Students for Life (DSFL) student group from holding a discussion on student motherhood at a Women’s Center venue during the group’s "Week for Life" event. The group’s president turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. Only hours after FIRE exposed Duke’s decision to public scrutiny yesterday, Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory wrote to the group to say that "mistakes were certainly made that should not have occurred" and that she had "taken steps to ensure that such an incident will not happen again."

"We are thankful that Duke acted quickly to affirm its promises of free speech to its students, regardless of their viewpoints," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. "While this exclusion never should have happened in the first place, we hope that Duke and its Women’s Center will now be more cognizant of their promises to welcome differing points of view, protect free speech on campus, and treat all students fairly and justly." 

DSFL had reserved a Women’s Center space for a "Discussion with a Duke Mother" on March 18. A Duke student who has a child was to speak about motherhood and the challenges of being in both roles. The day before the event, the reservation was abruptly canceled in a voicemail to the group. The next day, Duke Women’s Center Gender Violence Prevention Specialist Martin Liccardo said that because the event was associated with the Week for Life and DSFL, the event could not be held at the Women’s Center because some students were upset about the presence of a pro-life group. Michelle Barreto, president of DSFL, turned to FIRE for help.

FIRE wrote Duke President Richard H. Brodhead on March 26, asking him to respect Duke’s promises of free speech and noting that "if Duke intends to officially declare itself a pro-choice university at which students who hold pro-life views are to be silenced by university staff and centers," then Duke should warn students about its stance before they choose to attend.

On Monday, FIRE issued a press release about DSFL’s exclusion from the Women’s Center, while Barreto explained the situation in a simultaneous op-ed on the national politics website The Daily Caller. The story was picked up by a wide variety of media outlets, and public reaction was roundly negative.

Yesterday evening, Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory sent a letter apologizing to the students. Gregory acknowledged that "the Women’s Center is indeed intended to be a place that supports the agency and choices of all women" and expressed her wish that DSFL members would continue to use the Women’s Center facilities.

"Like most private universities, Duke promises its students and faculty a level of free speech and fair treatmentregardless of viewpointin order to attract the best students and faculty possible," said FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley. "Too often, however, these promises are broken, as they were this month at Duke. Fortunately, widespread attention to viewpoint discrimination is a powerful corrective, and FIRE is glad that in this instance, Duke has done the right thing."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Robert L. Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org
Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University: 919-684-2424; president@duke.edu