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Queens College and CUNY commit to First Amendment reforms in lawsuit settlement

By November 21, 2017

Last week, officials from Queens College and members of the City University of New York Board of Trustees agreed to settle a First Amendment lawsuit filed earlier this year and committed to reform policies that resulted in a pro-life student group being denied official recognition without explanation. The settlement was the third this month for attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented the group.

The lawsuit, Queens College Students for Life v. Members of the City University of New York Board of Trustees, was filed in January after Queens College Students for Life applied to become a registered student organization and access benefits enjoyed by registered groups, such as the ability to reserve space on campus, invite speakers, and receive funding from student activity fees. According to the plaintiffs, their application was rejected without explanation or recourse while other groups were immediately approved. Queens College and CUNY policies invited this result, the suit alleged, by giving officials unchecked discretion to grant or deny registration and funding to student groups.

Queens College defendants have now agreed to revise the school’s policies to safeguard against discrimination on the basis of a group’s views in registration and funding decisions. As ADF reports:

The changes include concrete guidelines on the approval of student groups and allocation of funds, a requirement for a written decision, elimination of a discriminatory student body “referendum” on whether groups will be funded, and the addition of an appeals process that student organizations can use if they are denied recognition.  

In addition, CUNY trustee defendants directed their general counsel’s office to review board policies on student organization registration and the allocation of student activity fees. The office was instructed to provide recommended reforms in compliance with “prevailing law and best practices” for implementation by next academic year.

Queens College and CUNY’s promised reforms are a win for student speech and associational rights in New York and beyond. Too often, college policies vest extremely broad discretion in administrative committees or student governments to grant or deny student groups access to college resources and activity fees. Such discretion can be and is sometimes used to shut out unpopular groups and messages. Fordham University, for example, is currently facing litigation in New York state court over its refusal to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine based on the fear the group would create “polarization” on campus. This spring, Wichita State University’s student government refused official recognition to a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty because of its political views, positions on free speech, and instances of chapters at other campuses inviting controversial speakers. The decision was overturned after FIRE wrote to remind the school that denying recognition for viewpoint-discriminatory reasons violates student First Amendment rights.

If your student organization is denied official recognition, or access to other college resources like student activity fee funding, because of its views or message, let FIRE know by submitting a case through our online form.