For the past few weeks, FIRE has been in contact with the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) at Stony Brook University in New York, after the group was denied recognition by Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG). The USG declared the group too similar to Stony Brook’s College Republicans. This puts us in territory remarkably similar to where FIRE was last fall, when a new YAF chapter at the University of South Florida was denied recognition after an administrator deemed the group too similar to the group Young Americans for Liberty.
YAF at Stony Brook had, in fact, encountered this argument from the USG before; in the spring of 2010 its recognition was initially rejected for the same perceived similarities to the College Republicans. YAF clarified and corrected this impression, and successfully gained recognition.
This past winter, YAF submitted the required paperwork to be eligible for USG funding for the Spring 2011 semester, and met initial approval. When the group’s application was sent to the USG Senate for final approval, however, YAF was told:
After reviewing your club’s mission statement, the Special Services Council has come to the conclusion that your club is very similar to the College Republicans. We are not permitted to recognize new clubs whose mission is similar or an extension of a club that is already recognized and funded by USG.
This kind of judgment call—whether by university administrators or by student government representatives—is highly problematic and frequently unconstitutional, and easily leads universities to uphold untenable double standards for recognition. As we explained in our letter to the University of South Florida last fall:
[I]t is not the place of a USF administrator to judge whether two student organizations have “philosophical approach[es]” that are too similar in order to determine whether they both may coexist with campus recognition. USF’s explicit policy is that student organizations may not have “the same” purpose and goals, yet Miller has redefined the policy to involve her own judgment of whether two groups have goals that are “fairly similar, if not the same.” This level of discretion is untenable. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional.” (Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 394 U.S. 147, 150-51 (1969) (emphasis added)).
The Supreme Court’s demand for “narrow, objective, and definite standards” is meant to prevent precisely what happened at USF and at Stony Brook. In determining that YAF and the College Republicans were “very similar,” a small group of student representatives determined that, as near as made no difference to them, YAF and the College Republicans were the same, and students without a YAF chapter on campus would be just as happy with the College Republicans, and vice versa. YAF and the College Republicans, I’m quite sure, would both beg to differ. College Republican groups on campus exist for the promotion of Republican policies and Republican candidates for office, while YAF advocates for the conservative philosophy of its guiding Sharon Statement irrespective of party. It may seem like six of one and half a dozen of the other to the USG, but to those involved with the groups, the difference is profound.
The Stony Brook USG should not be excited about putting itself in the position of making subjective value judgments on student groups relative to their peer groups. Stony Brook’s student activities site, for example, lists numerous Christian fellowship organizations; does the USG really want to get into the business of evaluating, for example, how orthodox the varying groups are and determining which ones are distinct enough to merit recognition? Likewise, the site also lists Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese student groups. Does the USG envision reaching a point where it will direct future interested parties to the Asian Students Alliance, which in theory could include all of them? I should hope that the USG goes “ick!” at the thought of this.
All this having been said, we haven’t even arrived at what may the most troubling part of the recognition process. Had YAF been given the green light by the USG Senate, its funding process, as dictated by the USG, would have required YAF to collect the signatures of five percent of the undergraduate student body at Stony Brook in support of its application. By the student government’s own estimation, this would amount to requiring YAF to collect roughly 800 signatures. Further, USG would validate (i.e., check the student ID numbers of the signatories to validate that they were indeed Stony Brook undergrads) ten percent of the collected signatures.
Such a requirement is unreasonable. Practically speaking, asking any group to do this—particularly a new one with few members at its inception—is simply a massive undertaking. Further, it is easy to imagine students not wanting to sign a piece of paper and hand over their student ID number. On principle, many students are likely disinclined to do such a thing, and I don’t blame them.
Most disturbingly, however, such a requirement will inevitably subject groups to the whims of the majority culture prevalent on the Stony Brook campus. What if YAF, or any other fledgling group on campus, was unable to find 800 people willing to sign its petition? Some would, out of a principled respect for the marketplace of ideas, willingly sign and support their right to organize. Others who would rather not see them recognized, however, likely would not. In effect, the petition requirement amounts to a referendum on the group, placing it at an official disadvantage compared to groups espousing views more popular with the Stony Brook community. (Already existing groups, by the way, aren’t subject to this onerous requirement.)
FIRE has been following this case in recent weeks, and the Alliance Defense Fund has sent a letter to Stony Brook advancing these points. For a great lesson in the court history of student group-related cases, I highly suggest you take the time to read it.
We will continue to follow developments at Stony Brook, and hope that YAF is quickly recognized by the USG, and that this most likely unconstitutional petition requirement is scrapped. Hopefully the USG knows, as Torch readers remember, that the University of South Florida eventually rectified its double standard and paved the way for YAF’s recognition. Stony Brook must now do the same.