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Victory: Northwestern University Reverses Course, Recognizes Student Group After Rejection

Prospective student groups’ applications for recognition are too often rejected by their universities on the basis that their missions are “too similar” to those of already recognized groups. This justification often fails to withstand basic scrutiny, and too easily allows administrators to enforce double standards when recognizing or rejecting club applications.

Fortunately, one such student group, Northwestern University’s Turning Point USA (TPUSA) chapter, which was initially denied recognition on the basis that it was too similar to another group, has now been approved after FIRE intervened.

Northwestern student Philip Hawkyard first sought recognition for a TPUSA chapter in October 2015. The chapter, according to the national group’s website, would aim to teach students about limited government and engage them in debate about free market principles:

Turning Point USA educates students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government. Through non-partisan debate, dialogue, and discussion, Turning Point USA believes that every young person can be enlightened to true free market values.

On October 30, 2015, the group submitted its application for recognition. Weeks later, on December 10, Northwestern Student Organizations & Activities Graduate Assistant Lindsay Marrero informed Hawkyard that TPUSA’s application would not be approved. Marrero wrote:

Thank you for your application to create a new student organization. Our committee has reviewed your request and found your groups [sic] purpose to be too closely related to groups that already exist. Currently, there are already a large number of groups for whom we have limited resources. For these reasons we are, unfortunately, unable to approve your student group. If you would like to discuss this further, you are welcome to schedule a meeting with me after the winter quarter begins. I hope you have a wonderful break.

When Hawkyard pressed for further details, Marrero informed him that she believed TPUSA’s mission to be “very similar” to that of the university’s American Enterprise Institute (AEI) student chapter, a group “dedicated to freedom, enterprise and opportunity.”

On May 20, 2016, FIRE wrote to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, asking that TPUSA’s application be reconsidered in a viewpoint-neutral manner. As we explained in our letter, Marrero’s conflation of AEI and TPUSA erases important differences between the two groups:

[A] closer look at AEI and TPUSA reveals substantial differences between the two organizations’ purposes and goals. Putting aside Marrero’s subjective assessment that “promot[ing] campus dialogue surrounding free enterprise and American leadership” is too closely related to “educat[ing] students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government,” (which is far from self-evident) AEI’s infrequent and narrowly-focused events leave significant doubt that students interested in a TPUSA chapter could effectuate their mission through AEI’s programming priorities.   

FIRE reminded Schapiro that, although Northwestern is a private university and not bound by the First Amendment, it must abide by the free speech promises it makes to students. For example, in its “Policy Statement on Student Rights and Responsibilities,” found in the university’s Student Handbook, Northwestern agrees to respect students’ speech and association rights:

10. Students are free to form, join, and participate in any group for intellectual, religious, social, economic, political, or cultural purposes.

11. A student is free, individually or in association with other individuals, to engage in all campus activities, exercising the right of a citizen of the community, state, and nation, provided he or she does not in any way purport to represent the University.

Northwestern’s Division of Student Affairs’ “Academic Freedom/Freedom of Speech” statement makes similar promises:

Northwestern University is committed to the ideals of academic freedom and freedom of speech -- to providing a learning environment that encourages a robust, stimulating, and thought-provoking exchange of ideas.

In addition to alerting Northwestern that it was failing to follow its own policies and inhibiting the robust exchange of ideas it claimed to promote, FIRE explained that a review of Northwestern’s currently recognized student organizations shows the university’s recognition that groups with similar interests can easily co-exist, and that Northwestern therefore used an unjustifiable double standard when rejecting TPUSA on the basis of its perceived similarity to another group. We wrote:

For example, with respect to women’s rights, Northwestern officially recognizes student organizations such as College Feminists, Women In Leadership, International Gender Equality Movement, and Northwestern Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault. Northwestern also recognizes multiple groups focused on international human rights, such as Amnesty International, Fight for Freedom, Northwestern University Community for Human Rights, Peace Project, and UNICEF NU. With respect to environmental concerns, Northwestern recognizes Pura Playa (Engineers for a Sustainable World), Northwestern Energy Technology Group, Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, Real Food at Northwestern, and Wild Roots. Thus, in other circumstances, Northwestern has clearly recognized the unique contributions student organizations make to the community even in cases where their broader interests may overlap—to the ultimate benefit of all Northwestern students.

[Emphasis added.]

FIRE also pointed out that it’s inherently problematic for administrators to decide on behalf of students that one group represents their opinions better than another one could—AEI is not required to reflect the beliefs or activism of students who wish to form another group:

Marrero’s conflation of AEI and TPUSA makes the unwarranted judgment that members of one group would be equally comfortable in the other organization, were only one recognized at Northwestern. It also presumes that AEI will freely or accurately represent the voices of TPUSA students within its organization, which AEI is under no obligation to do.

Thankfully, after FIRE’s intervention, Northwestern reversed its decision. On June 13, Assistant Director of Student Organizations & Activities Joe Lattal contacted Hawkyard to inform him that Northwestern determined TPUSA’s application was wrongly rejected and reversed the decision.

After consulting with other members of the new org approval committee, we have reached the determination that Turning Point USA ought to be recognized as a new student group at Northwestern.

We’re pleased to see Northwestern quickly address our concerns—especially since the university’s relationship with free speech has been rocky in recent years. We hope other universities will follow suit and protect the free exchange of ideas on campus by reviewing prospective student groups’ applications in a viewpoint-neutral manner.

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