In a scenario FIRE has seen again and again at institutions across the country, Lindenwood University’s student government denied recognition to a Turning Point USA chapter out of apparent concern about the group’s perceived views.
LU student Cullen Dittmar applied for recognition of a university chapter of TPUSA, a conservative student group with chapters on campuses throughout the country. But the student government voted to deny the group recognition, with an administrator telling Dittmar the decision was based on information he “provided via [his] presentation and brief question and answer portion” at the student government meeting weighing his club’s recognition. An anonymous student, however, told Campus Reform that the student government denied the club recognition primarily because recognizing it could “cause arguments outside of the room.”
If these allegations are accurate, LU has violated its free expression promises.
The student government’s denial of recognition to TPUSA appears to be based on the potential that some will be offended.
FIRE wrote LU last week to explain that denying a student group recognition based on the group’s perceived views or potential controversy over them violates the free expression promises the university makes to students. LU promises students that it “values freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas and, in particular, values the expression of controversial ideas and differing views.” Additionally, it says “freedom of thought and word within the confines of higher education is central to effective education of the whole person.” (Although not bound by the First Amendment as public universities are, private universities that promise students commensurate expressive freedoms are legally and morally obligated to honor those commitments.)
In allowing its student government to deny recognition to a group based on viewpoint, LU clearly contravenes these promises. As we wrote in our letter:
The student government’s denial of recognition to TPUSA appears to be based on the potential that some will be offended, as well as negative perception of the student group’s views. Yet, the “bedrock principle” underlying free speech is that it may not be restricted “simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Likewise, a commitment to free speech presupposes that some on campus may take offense to an expressed viewpoint. It is this counter-majoritarian principle that protects “insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate breathing space” for public debate, recognizing those with authority—in this situation, student government officials—“cannot make principled distinctions” in determining what speech is sufficiently offensive to suppress.
Denying student groups recognition represents a heavy burden, as only recognized organizations may request funding, access campus services and equipment, use university facilities for free, and more. It places them at a marked disadvantage compared to recognized groups, and hinders their members’ expressive freedom by restricting their ability to recruit, meet, and spread their group’s message on campus.
We made clear to LU that it “cannot allow its student government to use its administratively delegated authority to infringe students’ expressive and association rights in violation of the university’s strong affirmative commitments to free expression.” LU, likewise, must train its student government to exercise its authority in compliance with university policies.
And LU must do so soon, as Dittmar also plans to apply for recognition of a College Republicans club. When LU’s student government considers this request — and whenever it considers any group’s request for recognition — it must do so in a viewpoint-neutral manner, granting the group recognition so long as it meets all viewpoint-neutral requirements.
FIRE sees cases like this one too often — and not just involving TPUSA. Universities across the country must do a better job of teaching their student governments to leave their opinions of groups’ viewpoints at the door when exercising discretion over student groups’ official status. Of course, students — including members of student governments — may have opinions about groups and may express those opinions vehemently, but when a university promises free expression, students acting under university authority cannot deny groups resources because of their views.