Yesterday marked the first day of the fall semester at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), but students there cannot form new student organizations due to administrators’ “moratorium” on recognizing new organizations—a “temporary” restriction that has lasted since at least September of 2015. The unexplained moratorium means that students who want to start a new organization—whether it’s a political group or a chapter of the Make-a-Wish foundation—are added to a list, but cannot use campus facilities or ask for a dime of the fees students pay to the student government. FIRE is calling on CSULB to resume recognizing student groups, or at least explain why it is refusing to do so, before this moratorium drags into a second year.
FIRE was alerted to the moratorium by a student unable to get administrators to explain to him why he could not start a new organization. In March, FIRE issued a public records request to CSULB under California’s Public Records Act, asking for documents relating to the moratorium. When CSULB eventually—and belatedly—provided these records, FIRE learned that at least 24 organizations had been added to the waiting list.
So what organizations are waiting indefinitely for an administrator to bless them with a stamp of approval? One is a chapter of the Make-a-Wish foundation, which aids children with terminal illnesses. Others—including an organization dedicated to sharing immigrants’ stories, a pro-Second Amendment group, and a pro-life group—are political in nature, and could provide perspectives that would be highly relevant during an election season that is already in full swing.
College campuses are largely sequestered communities, composed of students who are there only for a few years. Students join or create organizations and, through those organizations, interact with their campus community, making it their own. Administrators, in turn, can boast to prospective students about the vibrant campus community and the opportunities created by these eager students.
But students’ ability to organize hinges upon the structures and restrictions created by campus administrators. When college officials refuse to recognize some organizations, they must be able to articulate a reason for doing so. As the Supreme Court of the United States noted in Healy v. James (1972), “There can be no doubt that the denial of official recognition, without justification, to college organizations burdens or abridges [the] associational right [of individuals to associate to further their personal beliefs.]”
And at CSULB, administrators’ refusal to grant approval can cripple students’ ability to organize. In addition to being deprived of the ability to use campus facilities, students also can’t make funding requests from their student government, meaning students are paying into a fund every semester, but can’t create new organizations to request the very money being held for them. Another regulation requires “off-campus” organizations—although it’s unclear whether this definition includes students’ unrecognized groups—to get administrators’ advance permission before they can distribute “publicity” on campus.
Perhaps CSULB has a perfectly rational explanation for imposing a temporary moratorium on new organizations. Whatever it might be, administrators do not appear to be sharing it with students. Nor do the public records produced by CSULB—which had been asked for all documents relating to this decision—reveal anything about why CSULB administrators decided to stop recognizing student groups.
That’s why FIRE sent a letter to CSULB today, calling on campus administrators to resume recognizing new student organizations—or at least explain why they refuse to do so.
Update (August 19, 2016): CSULB appears to have lifted the moratorium on new student organizations. Here’s a timeline detailing what we know about the school’s response last night:
7:36 p.m. EDT: A CSULB administrator responded to FIRE by email:
There is not a moratorium on the recognition of New student organization on our campus. Students are free to contact my office to imitate the new organization chartering process.
Director, Student Life & Development
California State University, Long Beach
It’s unclear whether the lifting of the moratorium was previously planned or came in response to FIRE’s letter.
7:54 p.m.: After CSULB had responded to FIRE’s letter, the moratorium was still listed on CSULB’s website.
8:01 p.m.: About eight minutes later, the text about the moratorium was removed from CSULB’s website.
FIRE is pleased that CSULB will resume recognizing new student organizations this year. We will continue to monitor the situation.
This article was originally published at 4:51 p.m. on August 18, 2016.