After FIRE intervened, the University of South Florida (USF) reversed its denial of recognition to the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) student group. USF had argued that YAF was too "similar" to the libertarian Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) on campus, despite the fact that YAF, one of the most prominent conservative student organizations operating on college campuses today, has been around since 1960, while the much younger YAL sprung Athena-like from Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign.
YAF first tried to gain recognition in April 2010, submitting its Chapter Constitution to gain official recognition. USF sat on the application for months, then rejected the application in a September 23 e-mail from Student Programs Coordinator Edna Jones Miller to YAF Founding Chairman Anthony Davis. Miller’s e-mail stated:
After reviewing the mission of the proposed organization, it was determined that the purpose of your proposed organization may be fairly similar, if not the same, as another existing organization that is established at the USF Tampa Campus. … One of the requirements for establishing a new organization on campus is that no other student organization can exist with the same or similar mission/ purpose.
Perhaps you can possibly attempt to clarify your mission statement to demonstrate how your proposed organization is significantly different than any other existing organization. That will also help us to understand the distinctive philosophical approach of the group beyond the obvious observation of similar names.
FIRE has been down this road before. In fact, we’ve been down this road before in Florida with another conservative student organization. In 2003, the University of Miami refused to recognize Advocates for Conservative Thought (ACT), a student organization created for "the exposition and promotion of conservative principles and ideas" because, the university argued, it already had recognized the College Republicans. After ACT’s four failed attempts, FIRE intervened and ACT finally received official recognition.
The implication of Miller’s response is that YAF and YAL are interchangeable, as though students who are interested in upholding certain beliefs as "young conservatives" should be expected to simply join YAL and be content with YAL’s focus on activism. Yet, many students who may be attracted to YAF might not choose to be members of YAL, and vice versa.
In any case, it 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)).
On October 28, USF Dean for Students Kevin Banks replied to FIRE’s letter, provisionally recognizing YAF pending approval of the group’s constitution. This was a start, but it left USF’s troublesome policy in place. FIRE made this point again in a November 8 letter to President Genshaft asking USF to use the "narrow, objective, and definite standards" required by Shuttlesworth. Banks responded to say USF is looking into it.
Meanwhile, there’s a rich double standard. As Greg bluntly put it in today’s press release, "USF recognizes over 60 multicultural groups, no fewer than 20 engineering clubs, and even a group solely devoted to appreciation for Nerf products, but a conservative group was considered too similar to a libertarian organization to be allowed on campus?"
USF’s delays have cost YAF at least a semester’s worth of activity. YAF will try again in the spring, meaning the group will have spent the better part of a year focusing on what should have been a formality. We’re of course happy that the group is on track toward full recognition, though we obviously have cause to be worried about USF’s ability to act fairly toward YAF. Miller seems to have been too distracted by YAF’s and YAL’s similarity of names to give more than a brief look at their divergent missions, and all too happy to assume that conservatives and libertarians are as interchangeable as two pairs of socks, while dozens of groups with similar and overlapping missions have been recognized at USF.
FIRE will stay on top of USF so long as its recognition policies and practices threaten freedom of association on campus.