University Belatedly Approves Conservative Student Group
CORAL GABLES, FL—The University of Miami (UM) has abandoned a double standard that it had used to deny official approval to a conservative student group, Advocates for Conservative Thought (ACT). The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had written to UM President Donna E. Shalala on April 7, 2003, inviting her to avoid the embarrassment of this denial of intellectual and political pluralism. Shortly after this, UM once again rejected ACT’s application for recognition. On the morning of May 2, FIRE issued a press release protesting the injustice against ACT, and the media began asking questions of UM. That same afternoon, President Shalala issued a statement repudiating COSO’s actions. Now, six months after first seeking recognition, ACT is an approved student group.
In a letter of May 5, 2003 to FIRE’s president, Alan Charles Kors, Shalala wrote, “I deeply regret the escalation of the issue you raised in your original letter to me. Unfortunately, I did not see the letter, and those to whom it was referred did not respond in a timely manner or bring it to my attention.”
“This is an important victory for equality and for liberty,” said Kors, “and we are heartened by Donna Shalala’s response.”
ACT’s difficulties began in November 2002, when students at UM sought to create an organization for “the exposition and promotion of conservative principles and ideas.” ACT’s application for recognition to the Committee on Student Organizations (COSO), which UM has authorized to act in these matters, was rejected four times. This denied ACT the use of vital university facilities and resources, including the right to “promote the organization and its activities on campus.” COSO’s justification was that the College Republicans already offered a conservative voice on campus and that there already was a neutral forum on campus for political debate. After the third denial of recognition, ACT contacted FIRE.
In his April 7 letter, Kors explained that ACT, unlike the College Republicans, did not seek to engage in partisan political activities (indeed, not all of its members were Republicans), but to give voice to specific philosophical and political ideas. He also noted that COSO had approved a host of cultural, religious, political and professional groups with overlapping missions—including many groups considered liberal.
Once media scrutiny brought the matter squarely to her attention, President Shalala issued a statement addressing FIRE’s concerns. When considering new groups, she wrote, “the purpose and content of those organizations absolutely should not be subject to review….I have asked Committee on Student Organizations to implement a new policy that is consistent with the principles of free speech, academic freedom, and competition.” The statement concluded: “I have asked them to convene a meeting immediately to review the application for the Advocates for Conservative Thought.” On May 6, COSO recognized ACT.
“We are delighted that UM has finally agreed to recognize our rights,” said Sarah Canale, co-president of ACT. “FIRE made all the difference. For six months we were treated like second-class citizens. One day after FIRE took our case public, everything began to change. ACT promises to make UM a place where freedom of speech is a cherished right.”
“Colleges and universities across the country should take note,” said Kors. “They will have to face public scrutiny if they restrict free expression, free association, or equality on their campuses. This nation takes the rights of its students seriously.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Miami and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.