Cold winters, hot wings, and “a place where you’ll make a real difference.” That’s what University at Buffalo offers its students — but not those who want to pursue their passions by participating in certain student groups. A new student government policy threatens to derecognize dozens of student groups solely for their affiliation with outside organizations. FIRE calls on the university to walk back this egregious violation of students’ First Amendment right to freedom of association.
On March 27, the UB Student Association passed a New Club Recognition Policy that provides “no SA club may be a chapter of or otherwise part of any outside organization.” The policy exempts “clubs in the Academic, Engineering, or Sports Councils, and clubs whose sole purpose is to engage in inter-collegiate competition.” Existing clubs must comply with the policy or risk derecognition.
This policy poses an existential threat to many current and prospective student clubs because of their association with local, regional, and national chapters. Without recognition, clubs are shut out from student activity fee funding, university facilities, campus advertising, and a host of other benefits.
Beyond First Amendment concerns, it’s unclear what interests the student government seeks to advance by jeopardizing the status of dozens of student groups in good standing.
The First Amendment protects freedom of association, a right courts proclaim “has, for centuries, been at the heart of the American system of government and individual rights” by protecting the freedom “to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.” This fundamental right applies in full force on state college campuses. That’s why FIRE wrote UB on April 28 explaining how public university student governments cannot punish student groups for exercising this right by denying them recognition for associating with outside organizations.
The New Club Recognition Policy reeks of guilt by association. Decregonizing existing student groups, and refusing to recognize prospective clubs, solely for being “a chapter of or otherwise part of any outside organization” arbitrarily punishes students for associating with other organizations. Even if UB inexplicably perceives all outside organizations as unfavorable, the First Amendment prevents student governments from conditioning benefits on whether a student group associates with outside groups. The freedom of association protects students’ right to organize around causes, views, or ideas to influence their institutions, communities, and country — even if doing so offends campus leaders.
Student government complained event flyers featuring sunglasses with a queer pride flag and a skull and crossbones superimposed over the lenses violated the university’s discriminatory harassment policy.
The policy further tramples the First Amendment by impermissibly discriminating based on subject matter and viewpoint. By exempting “clubs in the Academic, Engineering, or Sports Councils, and clubs whose sole purpose is to engage in inter-collegiate competition” from its affiliation ban, UB unlawfully burdens groups based on their mission, purpose, and ideology. To preserve the fullest array of expression on campus, the First Amendment requires student governments to use only content and viewpoint neutral criteria when recognizing student groups. Although UB may prefer academic, engineering, and sports groups over, for example, political or religious organizations, it may not discriminate against disfavored clubs by imposing a greater burden for recognition.
Beyond First Amendment concerns, it’s unclear what interests the student government seeks to advance by jeopardizing the status of dozens of student groups in good standing. Associating with national chapters, sister clubs at other universities, and off-campus advocacy groups enables members of student organizations to meet people who share their interests and further the goals of their clubs. Why deprive the UB Vegan Club, Model United Nations, or the Women’s Healthcare and Wellness Association of university recognition for partnering with outside groups?
UB has failed to respond to our letter or provide any legitimate reason for violating students’ fundamental rights. FIRE again calls on UB to rescind this policy and restore student groups’ First Amendment right to associate with the organizations of their choice.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).