Wichita State University students participate in a free speech event.
- Student senators quizzed student group leader about her group’s stance on “free speech zones,” “hate speech,” and “safe spaces”
- Student senator: “We’ve seen very dangerous statements being said in the name of free speech”
- The U.S. Supreme Court has held that viewpoint-based discrimination against a student group is unconstitutional
WICHITA, Kan., April 7, 2017 — The law is clear: Colleges and universities cannot discriminate against student groups because of their viewpoints. However, that is exactly what the Wichita State University Student Government Association did when it refused to recognize Young Americans for Liberty, a prospective libertarian student group, because of the group’s belief in First Amendment principles.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Wichita State President John Bardo to demand that he immediately reverse the SGA’s decision and instruct the student government that it cannot engage in viewpoint-based discrimination against prospective student groups.
“The Wichita State student government is engaged in a full-frontal assault on the First Amendment: It unconstitutionally denied a student group official recognition because, ironically, the student group supports the right to freedom of speech,” said Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The Wichita State administration cannot give its student government authority to grant or deny recognition to student groups and then stand idly by when that authority is exercised in a viewpoint discriminatory manner. Wichita State must step in to reverse its student government’s unconstitutional actions.”
On April 5, the SGA Senate considered student Maria Church’s application to form a campus chapter of YAL, which has more than 900 campus chapters nationwide. During the meeting, SGA senators questioned Church about the prospective organization’s political positions, the issues on which it would focus, its affiliations with YAL chapters on other campuses, and the group’s views on the First Amendment.
One student senator asked Church to describe YAL’s position on “safe spaces.” (In reply, Church asked if the group needed a position on safe spaces.) Another senator asked for the group’s stance on “hate speech,” to which Church responded that it’s “deplorable” but protected by the First Amendment. (As a matter of law, Church is correct; the Supreme Court has not outlined an exception to the First Amendment for hate speech.) Senators also interrogated Church about YAL’s opposition to so-called “free speech zones.”
After Church left the meeting, the senators debated whether to approve YAL’s application. Several senators advocated strenuously against officially recognizing the group because of its stance on free speech issues and because YAL chapters at other schools have invited speakers such as former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. One senator said, “We’ve seen very dangerous statements being said in the name of free speech,” and expressed concern that Church argued that hate speech is protected by the Constitution. Another senator said, “If you want to talk about having free speech, [YAL’s] definition of free speech is highly skewed, based on the empirics of this.”
Following the debate, the SGA Senate voted against recognizing YAL.
The student government’s decision directly conflicts with longstanding First Amendment jurisprudence. More than four decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Healy v. James (1972) that a public college may not deny a student organization recognition “simply because it finds the views expressed by any group to be abhorrent.” When a public university delegates its authority over student organizations to a student government, it is obligated to ensure that its agent does not violate the constitutional principles that bind the university.
“It is discouraging to see elected student officials opposing the free speech of those who disagree with their political agendas,” said Church. “While they claim to stand for diversity and acceptance, they are attacking one of the most diverse groups on campus. The student senate is effectively silencing the very people they’re claiming to stand up for.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
John Bardo, President, Wichita State University: 316-978-3001; email@example.com