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We’re Not Buying Hagerstown Community College’s Excuses for Denying Student Group’s Recognition

Moriah DeMartino, a student at Hagerstown Community College (HCC) in Maryland, attempted to start a Turning Point USA (TPUSA) chapter at her campus last month. Instead of granting recognition to the nonpartisan, free-market advocacy student group, HCC used DeMartino’s request as an opportunity to crack down not only on attempts to form a TPUSA chapter but on all attempts to form politically-motivated student groups.

On August 17, DeMartino contacted HCC Student Activities Coordinator Heather B. Barnhart to ask if she’d spoken to Dean of Student Affairs Jessica Chambers about DeMartino’s interest in starting a TPUSA chapter. (Approval from both Chambers and Barnhart is required for prospective groups.)

Barnhart replied to DeMartino, rejecting the group’s eligibility for recognition and explaining that HCC would only allow Republican or Democratic clubs to form, and then only if they were founded simultaneously:

You and I can talk about the club tomorrow, but the highpoints are:

a. We can start a Republican Club, but not a Turning Point USA Club, though club members can belong to that national organization.

b. We can start a Republican Club as long as we also start a Democrat Club at the same time

This is not how freedom of association works.

On August 26, Campus Reform’s Lauren Houck reported on DeMartino’s difficulties and reached out to Barnhart and Chambers for clarification. Barnhart, providing different justifications from those in her earlier correspondence with DeMartino, told Houck that students cannot “start new clubs that duplicate the purpose and mission of existing clubs” and that DeMartino would be welcome to join the school’s education-focused Political Science Club.  

Chambers replied to Houck as well, repeating Barnhart’s suggestion that DeMartino become a member of the Political Science Club and walking back Barnhart’s initial recommendation that DeMartino start a Republican Club instead. Chambers’ full letter to Houck, which was echoed in a recent post to HCC’s website, stated:

As you know, Moriah DeMartino inquired about the possibility of establishing a TurningPoint USA club on the campus of Hagerstown Community College. Upon review of her inquiry, I determined that this request does not meet the necessary requirements to allow my approval for the club’s formation. The reason for my decision is based on several things, including the first statement listed under “Starting a Club” on page two of HCC’s Club Guide. It states the following:

The first step to create a new club on campus is to research existing clubs to be sure the mission and purpose are not duplicated.

HCC continues to have an active Political Science Club, under the advisement of Dr. Eric Schwartz, instructor of political science at HCC. The purpose of the club is to further educate and expose its members to the principles of political science in a true objective manner with respect to all student rights.

The objectives of the Political Science Club are quite broad and include non-partisan, but inclusive, political engagement, political learning, and political instruction. Student learning outcomes have been established to engage students in a collaborative learning environment to develop and deepen their knowledge of political structures. Furthermore, they will develop a normative appreciation of elements that characterize politics in the United Stares [sic],elements such as democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, market distribution of goods and services, provision of public goods, collective action dilemmas, and free rider problems.

After further review of the mission, purpose, and activities of the Political Science Club, I have determined that both Republicans and Democrats, as well as any other political parties, are able to be fairly represented as members of the currently existing club, without the creation of any additional clubs. This decision is further supported by board-approved policies that guide student services and student life on campus. As such, I encourage Moriah to seek active participation in HCC’s Political Science Club.

HCC, which had originally told DeMartino that she could form a Republican Club (a group she did not even apply to start) instead of a TPUSA chapter is now claiming that she can only join the one politically-focused organization whose mission HCC has deemed acceptable.

Troubled by the spurious and contradictory justifications behind HCC’s rejection of TPUSA, FIRE wrote to HCC President Guy Altieri on September 11 to dispute Barnhart’s and Chambers’ claims and remind HCC of its responsibilities to its students under the First Amendment.

First, we countered Barnhart’s bizarre notion that HCC can allow student groups to form only if a group with opposing views was also founded, a requirement that cannot be found in and HCC policies, including the “Starting a New Club” section of its student organization “Club Guide.” FIRE wrote:

HCC’s unwritten requirement on student groups not only is unconstitutional, but also raises immediate concerns about unfair double standards. One could argue, for example, that HCC’s recognition of The Christian Fellowship Club, currently the only religious group listed on HCC’s “Clubs & Organizations” page, would be in violation of this unwritten policy. If a multitude of viewpoints must be represented on campus for students to form a group to express one viewpoint, then HCC could logically require that Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist,atheist, and other faith-based or humanist groups be active on campus at the same time. This is unsustainable and unconstitutional. A student group’s ability to form on campus is not contingent on the desire of opposing groups to do the same.

We then took a closer look at Chambers’ arguments. Her claims that TPUSA’s mission duplicates that of the Political Science Club are simply false. One look at the Political Science Club’s “Syllabus” shows that it “was formed to enhance the instruction of political science” and seeks “to provide an environment where politics can be discussed in a civil and thoughtful manner.” This is clearly different than TPUSA’s stated goals of “educat[ing] students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government” and “mobiliz[ing] its activist networks to get involved in activism, issue-advocacy, public policy education, and grassroots organization.”

We were especially troubled by Chambers’ assertion that HCC’s Political Science Club rendered other political organizations obsolete:

Further, Chambers’ contention that the Political Science Club renders not only TPUSA but also prospective Democratic and Republican clubs and clubs of any other political party or label unnecessary is deeply worrying. It simply does not follow that students prevented from starting such groups will be equally happy to take up membership in the Political Science Club. (HCC made this same mistake earlier, when Barnhart suggested DeMartino form a Republican Club instead of a TPUSA chapter.) While the Political Science Club’s mission and activities could indeed appeal to students who identify as Democrats and Republicans, as well as those who identify as neither, the leap HCC makes in declaring that the Political Science Club obviates the need for separate clubs is impermissible. Democrats and Republicans have different philosophies, and they must be allowed to associate around those philosophies as they choose without being forced to subsume their missions to those of other organizations at HCC’s whim.

Public institutions like HCC may employ only content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria when considering student groups’ applications for recognition. Besides that, HCC should know that it best serves its students by creating an environment where different viewpoints and ideologies are represented on campus, not one where only administration-approved groups can form.

FIRE has requested a response from HCC by September 25. We hope the next time we report on matters at HCC we’ll be commending the college for reversing its unconstitutional rejection of TPUSA and reassuring its students that they attend a college that respects their First Amendment rights.

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