WASHINGTON, D.C., October 13, 2004—The Catholic University of America (CUA) has decided to officially recognize a campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). CUA administrators tried to justify their initial decision to deny the group recognition through claims that it was “unnecessary” because two other minority groups already existed on campus. Facing pressure from national media attention brought by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a threat of litigation from the NAACP, CUA’s reversal signals that it is now prepared to honor its own policies protecting and promoting student freedoms of dissent and expression.
“CUA has the right to define itself as a religious institution,” remarked FIRE President David French. “It also has the right to offer freedom of speech and association to its students—and its official policies indicated that it would do so. FIRE is pleased that CUA has chosen to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to live up to its own principles.”
CUA initially rejected student William Jawando’s request to form a campus chapter of the NAACP in April 2003. At the time, the university justified its decision by saying that two existing minority organizations would make the goals of an NAACP chapter redundant. However, Jawando’s goals in starting a NAACP chapter were explicitly political and centered on civil rights, while neither of the two existing groups listed political or civil rights activism as one of its primary purposes.
CUA had also objected to the national NAACP’s pro-choice stance, saying that student groups were not allowed to advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion. However, Jawando had assured CUA that the campus chapter of the NAACP would not address the issue.
FIRE wrote to CUA’s president, Rev. David M. O’Connell, on June 30, 2004, to point out the conflict between CUA’s decision to reject the NAACP the university’s own promises of freedom of expression and dissent. CUA quickly responded with a letter saying that the university would not revisit the issue until the fall, despite the fact that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume had responded to CUA’s actions with a threat to sue if the university continued to deny recognition to the student chapter. FIRE then took the case to the public.
After President O’Connell met with students last week, he advised university officials to reconsider the April 2003 decision. The NAACP chapter was officially approved on Tuesday, October 12.
“CUA’s recognition of the NAACP chapter is welcome news. We hope, however, that in the future CUA students will not be made to wait over a year to exercise their promised rights to free speech and expression on campus,” concluded FIRE’s French.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at CUA and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473, email@example.com
Rev. David M. O’Connell, President, Catholic University of America: 202-319-5100; firstname.lastname@example.org