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University of Northern Iowa administration must correct its student government’s refusal to recognize ‘hate group’ Students for Life

A bell tower on the University of North Iowa's campus.

The Campanile bell tower on the University of Northern Iowa's campus. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Oct. 7, the Northern Iowa Student Government considered a bill to recognize a UNI chapter of Students for Life. The bill failed 3-11 after an hour-long debate during which senators raised a litany of concerns, including that the organization was “hateful,” “infring[ed] on human rights,” and would open the door to “outside agitation” on campus because of its affiliation with the national organization Students for Life.

Although the senator who opened the debate reminded her fellow senators that “we approve student organizations based on if they meet our requirements of  a constitution” and that “an organization cannot be denied because you oppose or support their mission,” the NISG proceeded to do just that.

One senator said: “This is a hate group. This is hate speech. This is hateful rhetoric that is infringing on the human rights of healthcare.” (Newsdesk readers will be familiar with the fact that there is no First Amendment exception for hate speech.)

Another claimed “this [isn’t] about opinions, it’s not about speech, it’s not about censorship, it’s about . . . a specific group of people that are part of a national organization whose specific intended goal is to pursue actions that will be harmful to our community.”

As FIRE has repeatedly explained, public colleges and universities cannot deny official recognition to student organizations based on viewpoint. This constitutional obligation applies with the same force to student governments that wield the authority to grant or deny recognition — and with that, access to student activity fees — to student organizations.

There can be no dispute that the proposed chapter of Student for Life satisfies the university’s requirements for student organizations.

And concern about the organization’s affiliation with the national organization, Students for Life, is a classic example of viewpoint discrimination. In Healy v. James (1972), a public college refused to recognize a student chapter of Students for a Democratic Society because the organization’s philosophy was, according to the college’s administration, “antithetical to the school’s policies” and the chapter’s independence from the national organization was “doubtful.” The Supreme Court of the United States flatly rejected these as appropriate reasons to deny the group recognition, as First Amendment rights cannot be denied on the basis of guilt-by-association

UNI’s policies recognize this, even if NISG doesn’t. 

Further, there can be no dispute that the proposed chapter of Student for Life satisfies the university’s requirements for student organizations. Indeed, before the Oct. 7 decision to reject the group, senators were informed that Students for Life’s proposed constitution meets the viewpoint-neutral requirements to become a student organization at UNI.

On Wednesday, on appeal to the NISG Supreme Court, Students for Life’s bid for recognition was once again denied, apparently on the grounds that the organization was not formed “in good faith for a lawful purpose.” According to the university’s policies on student organizations, an organization may be registered “in good faith for a lawful purpose.” Perhaps the student government’s supreme court is unfamiliar with this “lawful purpose” standard, borrowed from corporate law. It’s a low bar, essentially meaning that so long as your organization is not established to do something illegal, it satisfies the “lawful purpose” burden.

The decision can now be appealed to UNI’s president, Mark Nook, who has appellate jurisdiction over the NISG Supreme Court’s decisions. The UNI administration has already indicated its intention to uphold the associational rights of Students for Life, releasing a statement last Friday promising that “UNI will not uphold a decision that violates the First Amendment and university policy.”

During the Oct. 7 debate, one senator opined that recognizing Students for Life out of concern that refusal could subject UNI to legal liability was an “extremely facile and weak” defense that “privilege[d] . . . money and . . . admins over student well-being.” To the contrary, such a decision would rightly uphold the expressive and associational freedoms of all UNI students. Viewpoint discrimination is a threat to all viewpoints, including both pro-life and pro-choice groups, not just those currently unpopular with a particular governing authority.

FIRE is hopeful that the UNI administration will stand by its commitment to correct this erroneous decision and recognize Students for Life.

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