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

By March 30, 2010

Duke University’s Women’s Center has reversed a decision 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. 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."

DSFL had reserved a Women’s Center space for a "Discussion with a Duke Mother" to take place 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 stated that because the event was associated with the Week for Life and DSFL, the event could not be held at the Women’s Center due to some students being 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. Usually, FIRE waits to send out a press release, but in this case, not only was the cancellation a week and a half old, but the story was already getting around to the press–and that’s on top of the fact that the denial of space was so inexcusably awful that it should never have happened in the first place. The story was picked up by a wide variety of media outlets, and public reaction was roundly negative. Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com and Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy were particularly timely in getting the news out, and we appreciate the exposure their blogs brought to the case.

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. Let’s hope that she has sent all of her employees a memo about the reversal of course and that we won’t be seeing this kind of blatant viewpoint discrimination out of the Women’s Center again. FIRE, as always, will be watching.

Schools: Duke University