HAMPTON, Va., February 22, 2007—For the second time in two years, Hampton University has inexplicably denied official recognition to students seeking to start a gay and lesbian group on campus. The group, Students Promoting Equality, Action and Knowledge (SPEAK), contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is calling on Hampton to either explain or reverse its decision.
“Denying students the right to form an organization is a serious action, and warrants a serious explanation,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Hampton’s silence on the decision has left students, alumni, and the public wondering whether the denial was legitimate or a sign that some groups are not welcome at Hampton.”
SPEAK applied for recognition on September 11, 2006. The group’s proposed constitution states that its mission is to “serve as a bridge between the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight communities of Hampton University,” with the purpose of “providing a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation, and work to end homophobia.” On December 20, Interim Director of Student Activities Patra Johnson issued a letter denying SPEAK official recognition. Johnson offered no explanation of this decision, writing simply, “[y]our organizations [sic] proposal was not selected at this time.”
Hampton is a private, non-sectarian, historically black institution with a stated commitment to “prohibit[ing] discrimination, while striving to learn from differences in people, ideas, and opinions.” Hampton’s Code of Conduct, section 4, says “[e]ach member of the Hampton Family will support equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of age, sex, race, religion, disability, ethnic heritage, socio-economic status, political, social, or other affiliation or disaffiliation, or sexual preference.”
Yet no gay and lesbian organization exists at Hampton, even though student organizers report that 54 students expressed an interest in joining SPEAK. Hampton also denied recognition to a gay and lesbian group two years ago, and Hampton policies, as referenced in Johnson’s letter to SPEAK, state that student organizations denied recognition are not permitted to reapply for another two years.
Concerned students contacted FIRE, which wrote a letter to Hampton on February 7 urging the university to recognize SPEAK or provide an adequate explanation for effectively banning the group from campus for the next two years. FIRE’s letter pointed out that although Hampton is a private university, “[t]he Code of Conduct’s guarantee of equal treatment is not only a goal toward which the university should aspire, but a promise that Hampton has made to its students.” Hampton has not replied to FIRE’s letter.
“Hampton’s silence surrounding this denial means that students have no idea what, if anything, they can do to gain recognition the next time around,” Lukianoff said. “If Hampton is limiting freedom of association on campus, it needs to make that clear in its promotional materials. Hampton should not hold itself out to be a college that respects freedom of association and instead deliver selective repression. Hampton’s students deserve to know the full extent of their rights on their own campus.”
FIRE has intervened at Hampton before: in December 2005, students were punished for handing out literature, including anti-Bush flyers, outside the student union without university approval. FIRE wrote a letter to Hampton in that case as well, and the flyer-distributors, originally threatened with expulsion, were sentenced to community service.
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 at Hampton University can be viewed at thefire.org/hamptonu.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
William R. Harvey, President, Hampton University: 757-727-5231; 757-727-5746 (fax)
Patra Johnson, Interim Director of Student Activities, Hampton University: 757-727-5691; email@example.com