Hampton’s philosophy: ‘Don’t speak’

February 26, 2007

When it comes to its students, Hampton University’s philosophy can be described as “don’t speak.”

Continuing its assault on the First Amendment, the university has denied recognition to a gay and lesbian student group for the second year in a row.

The group Students Promoting Equality, Action & Knowledge goes by the acronym SPEAK. Its stated mission is to serve as a bridge between the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight communities at HU. But without university recognition, it can’t officially meet or post fliers at the seaside campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based organization, has taken on this issue at Hampton, just as it did in December 2005, when students were threatened with expulsion for handing out anti-President Bush fliers without university approval.

In 2003, the school’s administration confiscated student newspapers featuring a story on cafeteria health-code violations.

‘Heavy-handed tactics’

FIRE president Greg Lukianoff called HU “a school that seems to be run with a lot of fairly arbitrary and heavy-handed tactics.”

As a private school, Hampton is not bound by the First Amendment. But Lukianoff argues that the school is obliged to live up to its code of conduct, which vows “to prohibit discrimination, while striving to learn from differences in people, ideas and opinions.”

In response to a query from The Times-Dispatch, Hampton’s University Relations office e-mailed a statement citing a moratorium “on all new student organizations except when there is a vacancy.” It said applications are evaluated on a first-come first-served basis. “No one organization will receive preferential treatment.”

For the 2006-2007 academic year, there were four vacancies. During the last two years, a total of 44 organizations applied for charters and 11 were granted, the statement said.

Lukianoff said FIRE is not a litigation group and wages its battles in the court of public opinion. It has not seen a similar campus freedom-of-association case.

“In our experience, it has been more common that evangelical Christian groups that think homosexuality is sinful don’t get recognized,” he said.

Received crash course

SPEAK treasurer Jared McCullough, who is gay, received a crash course in HU homophobia as a freshman when his dorm director said he didn’t tolerate gay people.

“I don’t feel it’s hostile in a violent way,” he said of the campus, “but I do feel there’s a very serious undertone of unacceptance.”

Jessica Smith, who is straight, joined SPEAK last spring. “It was just something I believed we should have on campus.”

The junior from Chicago says the group met all the application requirements.

“Everything was on time. And it took them forever to actually respond and say that we weren’t recognized,” Smith said. “We were told we’d have to wait two years before we could try again, even though we tried last year.”

McCullough, a junior from Atlanta, is mystified at the resistance to SPEAK, given the existence of similar organizations at private historically black schools such as Morehouse College.

Wouldn’t enroll

Given hindsight, he wouldn’t enroll at Hampton. “Why would I want to, when I’m not supported educationally and socially?”

Smith, citing an atmosphere of repression, also would have passed on HU, she said.

“There’s no reason people should have to walk around being afraid to say what they feel on their campus, which is supposed to be their ‘home by the sea.’”