ST. LOUIS, MO—Washington University in Saint Louis, under Chancellor Mark Stephen Wrighton and Law School Dean Joel Seligman, knowingly has permitted an official University agency to deny recognition of a student organization because of the group’s refusal to adopt the University’s political view of the group’s moral mission.
“Washington University’s chancellor has condoned intolerable restrictions on freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. Washington University, known historically as a great center of inquiry and debate, is acting as a politically orthodox campus that denies intellectual pluralism and diversity,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Last month, Washington University’s Student Bar Association (SBA), which the University Chancellor has authorized to act officially in these matters, inappropriately interfered with the rights of Law Students Pro-Life, a student group that sought permission to exist at the University. The SBA twice rejected the constitution of Law Students Pro-Life, a group organized by and for students at Washington University School of Law (WUSL). The student group was an association organized to advocate “pro-life principles as applied to abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.” As a result of the SBA ruling, Law Students Pro-Life is disqualified from receiving any SBA funds, despite the fact that all of its members pay WUSL’s mandatory student activity fee. It also is ineligible for student office space, for a campus mail address, for tax-exempt status, and for listing in the admissions brochure.
In a September 9, 2002 letter of rejection to Law Students Pro-Life, SBA President
Elliott Friedman termed “the catching issue” what he labeled “the narrowness of
your group’s interests and goals.” The SBA “felt that the organization was not
touching on all possible Pro Life issues” because it did not have an “anti-death
penalty” position in its constitution. “In short,” Kors noted, “Law Students Pro-Life
had the wrong conscience.” SBA rejected the group’s reapplication on September
23, without comment.
On September 30, 2002, FIRE wrote to Chancellor Wrighton, requesting that WUSL avoid public embarrassment by taking self-corrective measures:
“Despite meeting all of the requirements stated in the student government’s Approval for Student Organizations By-Laws, Law Students Pro-Life has twice been officially denied the right to exist as a recognized student organization….The suggestion that Law Students Pro-Life adopt an anti-death penalty stance violates the group’s right to organize according to its own principles. It is an attempt to coerce them to espouse beliefs that they may not want to address, or that may even violate their deepest conviction—No institution seriously committed to open discourse would tell students what issues they cannot address; let alone, what issues they must address.” A meeting between administrators and Law Students Pro-Life, after FIRE’s letter, failed to resolve this unfairness.
“This case,” said Kors, “reflects both dreary intolerance and a breathtaking double standard.” FIRE’s letter noted that WUSL rightly had recognized freedom of association by its approval of several organizations that various individuals might find “narrow”: the Jewish Law Society, committed to “fulfilling the needs of Jewish students”; the Black Law Students Association, committed “to orient, assist and otherwise support African American students”; the Washington University Environmental Law Society, committed to engaging the “intersection of law and the environment”; OUTLAW, committed to fostering an environment that is “supportive, positive, and safe for individuals of sexual and gender diversity”; and the Golf Club, whose mission is golf. “Put more simply,” FIRE wrote, “your agent’s ruling against Law Students Pro-Life imposes a disability that you do not—and would not—impose upon those of different belief and persuasion.”
FIRE also reminded Chancellor Wrighton that by allowing the University’s decision to stand, he ignored WUSL’s promise, stated in its 2002-2003 Parent’s Handbook: WUSL “is committed to the principles—of freedom of religion and speech.” “If this group had held views which passed WUSL’s political litmus tests,” Kors noted, “I suspect strongly that Chancellor Wrighton and his deans would have acted immediately to correct this indecency. He now is fully informed of this act of official intolerance, and it is his duty to fulfill his moral and legal obligations.”
Meanwhile, as Chancellor Wrighton maintains his silence, the students will continue to push for their rightful recognition by the SBA.
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 Washington University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Mark Stephen Wrighton, Chancellor: 314-935-5100; firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Dean Joel Seligman: 314-935-6420; firstname.lastname@example.org
Elliott Friedman, SBA President: email@example.com
David Hacker, Law Students Pro-Life: firstname.lastname@example.org