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This Month in FIRE History: Victory at U Miami

Two years ago this month, FIRE secured a victory in a case involving a student group Advocates for Conservative Thought (ACT). The student government had refused to recognize ACT, essentially arguing “we already have a conservative group on campus and we don’t need more.” U Miami was sort of trendsetter by making this argument and we have seen similar arguments crop up at other schools across the nation. Last summer Catholic University in D.C. also argued that it did not need a student chapter of the NAACP since it already had two minority student groups on campus (thereby ignoring the fact the mission and nature of the NAACP were completely distinct from the other groups). Catholic eventually relented to and allowed the NAACP chapter to form.

What probably pleased me most about this case was how thoroughly Alan’s letter to the University of Miami (with the help of some great research from then–Program Officer Emmett Hogan) debunked the claim that the rejection was based on the existence of one or two supposedly similar groups:

We are troubled not only by COSO’s argument that ACT’s mission overlaps with those two other groups, but also by the apparent double standard that COSO uses, as agent for UM, in its evaluation of applications for approval. The standard used to evaluate ACT’s constitution is far more stringent than that used for the evaluation of virtually all other groups. A survey of the student groups on your campus shows this.

Although COSO sponsors the University of Miami Young Democrats, for example, it also sponsors several organizations that could be considered liberal in philosophy, but not necessarily loyal to the Democratic Party: Amnesty International, Students for a Free Tibet, Habitat for Humanity, Earth Alert, and Animal Allies. (We further note that, beyond their philosophies, the purpose and activities of these groups overlap and intersect in many ways.) UM recognizes, rightly, that “liberal” does not mean “Democrat”—that there is a wide spectrum of views, philosophies, and attitudes that could be called “liberal.” Why, then, does your institution believe that “conservative” necessarily means “Republican”?

COSO promotes religious diversity by approving three different nondenominational Christian groups—Campus Crusade for Christ, Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. (These are separate, too, from explicitly denominational groups, like the Catholic Students Association or the Episcopal Students Organization.) In addition, COSO acknowledges both the Islamic Society and the Muslim Students Organization. Altogether, UM hosts ten Christian groups and two Muslim groups. Certainly, these groups overlap to some degree in their missions, purposes, and activities.

COSO’s tolerance for a diversity of student groups also extends to those that focus on environmental issues. UM students can join Earth Alert, Geological and Environmental Outings, or the Surfrider Club (which focuses on “the world’s oceans, waves and beaches”), three groups that are all dedicated to fostering “awareness” and “understanding” of environmental issues.

COSO has approved many different groups that explore certain professions. For example, students interested in engineering can join the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the Architectural Engineering Institute, the Institute of Industrial Engineers, the Association of Cuban-American Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers. Students interested in business can join Entrepreneurship Club—or they can join the Generation-X Entrepreneur Club, the Strictly Business Association (which focuses on minority students), and Women in Business. Lastly, COSO allows the University of Miami Filmmakers Association, the Black Filmmakers Association, QuantUM Entertainment, and the National Broadcasting Society all to exist on campus.

COSO is very tolerant of cultural diversity when it grants approval to student organizations. COSO has registered the African Students Union, United Black Students, and Brothers Overcoming Negativity and Destruction—three groups devoted to cultural and social issues impacting African and African-American students. COSO has registered the Asian American Students Association, but it also registers the Filipino Student Association, the Friendship Club of China, the Indian Students Association, and OASIS (a group focused on Arab culture). COSO approved the Latin American Student Association, but it also approved the Columbian Student Association and the Hispanic Heritage Month Association. Lastly, although COSO approved the Caribbean Students Association, it still approved the Federacion de Estudiantes Cubanos, the Haitian Student Organization, the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Association, the United Dominican Association, the Virgin Islands Students Association, and the Organization for Jamaican Unity—six organizations that, altogether, could fall under the purview of the Caribbean Students Association.

We do not suggest that these groups do not merit approval by the university. Indeed, to the contrary, if the available resources permit it, UM always should encourage greater diversity of associations, not less. (Significantly, COSO never suggested that limited resources justified denying approval to ACT.) Nevertheless, if your institution can permit students interested in Haitian culture to organize separately from the Caribbean Students Association, surely it can also allow conservative students to organize separately from the College Republicans and the Council for Democracy. [Emphasis added.]

Despite this great letter, U Miami did not relent until the media became interested in that case. Next thing you knew we had a very positive letter from University President Donna Shalala that read, “I deeply regret the escalation of the issue you raised in your original letter to me. Unfortunately, I did not see the letter, and those to whom it was referred did not respond in a timely manner or bring it to my attention.” Needless to say, ACT was recognized.

Oh well. As we have seen so many times forceful legal and moral arguments aren’t taken seriously until they are taken to the press. FIRE hopes that more colleges and universities will learn to be responsive to allegations of unfairness even when the media aren’t watching.

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