After Northwestern University correctly determined last month that flyers used to promote an on-campus event did not violate the university’s harassment policy, the Northwestern College Republicans regained access to their funding after weeks waiting in limbo. But the reversal comes with continued concerns about the Associated Student Government’s commitment to upholding — or holding up — free expression on campus.
The ASG froze the College Republicans’ funding after they hosted a May 2 campus event featuring commentator James Lindsay. ASG members told The Daily Northwestern the College Republicans’ event flyers violated Northwestern’s policies on discrimination and harassment. (The flyers featured sunglasses with pride flag lenses with a skull and crossbones superimposed over the flag.)
FIRE wrote both the ASG and the Northwestern administration on May 11 urging the student government to reverse course, or if they did not, that the administration step in to ensure the College Republicans could maintain access to their funding. As our letter explained, the flyers did not approach Northwestern’s stringent standard for what conduct constitutes discriminatory harassment.
After the letter from FIRE, ASG leadership told the College Republicans that Northwestern’s Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance had decided not to investigate the flyers. Thus, the freeze on the funding was void.
Instead, the flyers were clearly protected by Northwestern’s strong promises of free expression. As we reminded the administration and the student government, “Those who dislike the flyers, the Supreme Court has noted, are free to ‘avert their eyes.’”
Northwestern administrators did the right thing — determining the flyers were protected expression and did not warrant investigation. But it never should have gotten to that point.
While the College Republicans regaining their funding is certainly a victory for free expression on campus, we remain concerned that the ASG froze their funding in the first place. Punishing protected expression, even temporarily, will inevitably chill speech for other clubs who fear running afoul of the student government and triggering a funding freeze while administrators go through the process of determining whether student speech is protected. This chilling effect has no place at a university such as Northwestern that promises students robust free speech rights.
Northwestern administrators did the right thing — determining the flyers were protected expression and did not warrant investigation. But it never should have gotten to that point. Instead, Northwestern has a duty to train all its agents — including the student government — about their responsibilities to respect a wide array of student expression.
While Northwestern is not the only school with student governments attempting to overreach, it could set a strong example for educating student leaders about the importance of upholding their peers’ expressive rights on campus.
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).
Writer and academic Yascha Mounk argues that a new set of ideas about race, gender, and sexual orientation have overtaken society, giving rise to a rigid focus on identity in our national debate. In his new book, "," Yascha seeks to take these...