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This Month in FIRE History: Victory for Conscience and Legal Equality at Washington University, Saint Louis

Four years ago this month, Washington University School of Law’s Student Bar Association (SBA) voted to recognize the student group Law Students Pro-Life. The October 14, 2002, vote overturned two earlier decisions that denied recognition to Law Students Pro-Life, ostensibly on the grounds that the group’s mission was too narrow because it did not have an “anti-death penalty” provision in its constitution. FIRE wrote to the university, which publicly promises the freedoms of religion and speech, urging it to correct this injustice. When FIRE received no response, and the university took no action, FIRE and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri issued an open letter to the university and FIRE circulated a petition asking “the Washington University administration to act immediately to recognize Law Students Pro-Life as an official student organization, with all attendant benefits.” The petition garnered more than 200 signatures in just 48 hours, and the SBA finally voted to recognize the group.
This was an important victory in FIRE’s ongoing battle for freedom of conscience and freedom of association on college campuses. Four years later, student groups are still regularly denied recognition on the basis of their beliefs, and FIRE is fighting these abuses across the country. The good news is that our arsenal now includes several important court decisions holding that, at public universities, such actions likely violate students’ First Amendment rights. Moreover, in the years since the Washington University case, numerous universities—public and private—have changed course and recognized student groups after public exposure brought unfavorable publicity. The fight is far from over, but we’re winning.

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