John Carroll says cancelling student-organized drag show is in line with “its free expression values”

September 19, 2019

On Tuesday, FIRE received a disappointing response to our letter encouraging John Carroll University to recommit to its promises of students’ freedom of expression by reversing its cancellation of an annual, student-organized drag show.

In an emailed statement attributed to the Office of the President, JCU’s administration says it believes such unilateral decisions to censor student speech are in line with its public commitments to free expression:

Dear Ms. Rank: 

This office wishes to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated September 10, 2019 regarding your request that the University alter its decision about holding a drag show event with outside performers on campus this academic year. While the University appreciates your input on the issue, it respectfully disagrees with your analysis and assertions related to the matter. The University does not believe the decision about hosting this event is contrary to applicable law, the University’s policies or legal commitments, or its free expression values, in particular in light of the University’s status as a private and Jesuit Catholic university and its exercise of customary and reasonable discretion to determine which events should be hosted on campus each academic year.   

 The University has no further response on this issue beyond the statement recently released to the University community.  

Sincerely, 

The Office of the President

John Carroll University

While the email indicates that the university engages in “customary and reasonable discretion to determine which events should be hosted on campus,” in a recent interview with Prizm Magazine, student leaders revealed that the administration has historically been hands-off about student-organized events. According to Eddie Jenkins, JCU student union programming board president, “Student activities fees are assessed on all students, . . . [s]o these really are programs for students, funded by students,” and students have not had “to get clearances [to host events] unless it’s something that involves the greater community.” That practice is consistent with a commitment to freedom of expression: administrators don’t have the authority to determine which views or expression is permissible. JCU’s cancellation of the drag show is contrary to its purported commitment to freedom of expression.

The university’s response also included a copy of its Sept. 9 statement, copied below. The statement asserts that JCU’s “goal and guiding principle” for student events is “to provide students with opportunities that promote the expression, appreciation and understanding of the many identities represented at John Carroll University.”

JCU Statement from Sept. 9, 2019 

Our goal and guiding principle with respect to student programming is clear. That is to provide students with opportunities that promote the expression, appreciation and understanding of the many identities represented at John Carroll University. Our educational mission remains grounded in the integration of faith and culture and a respect for the dignity of the human person. We welcome and support all of our students.

Back in April, I communicated my concerns regarding the divisiveness on campus related to the Carroll News and the need for respectful discourse. Recently I met with students, faculty and staff regarding my decision to not hold a drag show on campus at this time. John Carroll unambiguously supports our LGBTQIA+ community of students, faculty and staff. How best to do so is the question at hand. In my judgment, the drag show is not the best way to proceed. Rather, we need more and better programming that promotes the awareness and understanding of all identities on campus, especially our LGBTQIA+ students, and creates broader engagement. It became clear to me that repeating what we did last year would only add to the divisiveness and discontent, and fail to advance our goal. I also informed the students that we will re-evaluate where we stand as we get closer to the end of the academic year, but not before. 

While I do not expect everyone to agree with the decision, I ask that you respect the decision. Vice Presidents McCarthy and Peck are working with a number of departments on campus regarding our programming. We look forward to hearing from our students, faculty and staff regarding their ideas. 

But by banning a student event, the administration did the opposite, substituting its view of the “best way” to support the LGBTQ community for that of its students. Freedom of expression means that students, not administrators, choose the best way to express themselves. If JCU’s leaders believe they decide what views may be expressed on campus, they shouldn’t falsely tell students that the university protects freedom of expression. 


Cases:  John Carroll University: Administration Cancels Student-Organized Drag Show