Weeding Out Clubs at St. Charles

By May 15, 2012

The Cougars for Cannabis Club at St. Charles Community College (SCC) near Saint Louis, Missouri, was recently involved in a successful fight against its student government to obtain official recognition. Like many similar clubs across the country, Cougars for Cannabis tries to engage people in dialogue about marijuana policies and to advocate for decriminalization and regulation of the drug.

According to Patch (St. Peters, Mo.), this spring, club organizer Duell Lauderdale asked the SCC Student Senate to grant official recognition to Cougars for Cannabis. After three meetings, the Student Senate voted against approving the club. This action violated the club’s First Amendment rights, since the Student Senate’s authority to recognize groups was granted by SCC, a public college. Cougars for Cannabis appealed the decision to the administration, and ultimately the club was approved.  

Dean of Student Development Yvette Sweeny explained why: 

Their ability to discuss and to investigate whether our federal policies are still practical and reasonable, that’s just like any other law they’d be talking about whether it’s our civil rights laws or our constitutional process, this fits right in with free speech. 

But some students don’t seem to understand this fundamental principle.

Student Senate President Victoria Smith expressed concern that supporting the rights of a club such as Cougars for Cannabis somehow meant supporting illegal activity. She asked, "Why would you want to support something that’s illegal? Where does it stop?"  

There are a couple of major problems with this sort of objection. The first is that it displays a common problem with student government votes on club recognition: too many students seem to believe that giving a club recognized status means that you agree with it. That’s obviously not true; after all, most colleges have officially recognized College Democrat and College Republican clubs, and the student government couldn’t simultaneously agree with everything in both groups’ missions. Student governments should take a cue from the United States Supreme Court decisions in Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth (2000). These cases developed the idea that funding for student groups should adhere to the principle of "viewpoint neutrality," meaning that schools "may not discriminate based on the message advocated." If unpopular viewpoints and debate are suppressed on campus, our nation’s future leaders will remain unexposed to the ideological diversity that characterizes our democracy.   

Further, advocating for something that is currently illegal to be legalized is a perfectly legitimate enterprise. The campaigns for women’s right to vote, for the revocation of Prohibition, and the right of 18-year-olds to vote are some obvious examples. In a free society, you have every right to advocate for changes in the law. 

This sort of controversy is not new to FIRE. In 2010, a similar situation occurred at Northern Illinois University, where the Student Association Senate denied recognition to Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), not once, but twice before finally amending its policies to prohibit viewpoint discrimination against student groups desiring equal treatment. We’re glad that the St. Charles administration seems to have responded to the demands of the Bill of Rights, even if the Student Senate did not.

There may be some changes in the near future for SCC Student Senate Constitution, however. Outgoing Student Senate President Jared Streiler appointed a three-person group to decide whether or not the Student Senate’s constitution should be revised. If the Student Senate revises its constitution to force the Cougars for Cannabis out of existence, it likely will have another First Amendment violation on its hands. Yet, if the new constitution no longer lets the student government make viewpoint-based decisions when approving and funding student groups, this will be a welcome and necessary improvement.

Schools: St. Charles Community College