Wichita State University’s student senate is asking whether it can deny a Turning Point USA chapter recognition. Here’s why it can’t.

October 19, 2021

Student government leaders at public universities play an important role in university governance. They often allocate resources to student groups and implement the university’s recognition of student organizations, which carries important rights and benefits. At public universities bound by the First Amendment, and private institutions committed to expressive rights, student governments must make these decisions in a viewpoint-neutral manner. 

The student government at Wichita State University is grappling with this exact issue, delaying a final vote on whether to grant recognition to a chapter of the conservative campus group Turning Point USA. That delay is intended to seek guidance about whether denying recognition to the group over its viewpoint, even though it otherwise meets “each and every requirement” for recognition, would violate the First Amendment.

Today, FIRE wrote to the student senate to explain why denial of recognition — or further delay — will violate the group’s well-established First Amendment rights.

In meetings on Oct. 6 and 13, members of WSU’s student senate debated granting recognition to the TPUSA chapter. Senators raised issues with the group’s political ideology and expressive activities, citing the chapter’s recent event featuring the Gadsden flag near the university student center. The group’s fate hung in the balance as the bill proposing recognition seemed doomed to fail in the senate.

This would have been an unfortunately predictable result: FIRE has seen many student governments deny funding, recognition, and privileges to clubs because student leaders, or others on or off campus, do not like what they have to say. This exact situation arose at this very same university in 2017, when WSU’s student senate denied recognition to the prospective chapter of Young Americans for Liberty because of its views on “hate speech” and its choice of speakers. 

Personal animosity to the group’s viewpoints, and the potential offensiveness of the group’s ideology, are impermissible bases to deny recognition.

But the student government did not repeat the mistakes of its predecessors — not yet, at least. Instead, student senators tabled the vote until they could figure out whether denial of recognition would be “a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” seeking “legal guidance” to “provide answers as to this hazy legal question to ensure that taking this vote is an act that is legally permissible in the first place.” A vote is now scheduled for this coming Wednesday, Oct. 20. 

Asking whether its viewpoint-based rejection of TPUSA would violate the group’s freedom of speech is better than outright denial, and FIRE always encourages students to take the time to learn about their rights — but continued delay, or outright denial, will violate the First Amendment. 

The short answer to the student senate’s question is yes—as explained in FIRE’s letter sent to the WSU student senators today, the First Amendment forbids public universities and their student governments from denying the plenary benefits of recognition to prospective student groups based on their political ideology. Personal animosity to the group’s viewpoints, and the potential offensiveness of the group’s ideology, are impermissible bases to deny recognition. 

If these were a permissible basis, student organizations across the political spectrum would be denied recognition or funding because of others’ objection to their views. As today’s letter explains:

​​The prohibition against viewpoint discrimination is what has protected groups across the political spectrum when they hold dissenting or unpopular views. For example, it protected chapters of LGBTQ organizations in Arkansas and New Hampshire when student senates and university trustees, urged by state lawmakers, refused to “support a homosexual group” or “shocking and offensive” expression—refusals federal appellate courts held were in violation of the First Amendment, with one explaining that recognition cannot be curtailed on the basis that some find the group’s views “abhorrent or offensive.” FIRE has also come to the defense of organizations who faced loss of recognition or funding due to their protected speech, including groups on the left and right, pro-choice and pro-life organizations, animal rights and hunting clubs, and pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups. If student governments or university administrators could refuse recognition or funding because of a group’s views, the rights of all of these groups would be lost.

Student governments offer students an opportunity to gain public service experience as the voice of the student body, representing constituents and overseeing budgets that rival those of many small towns. When confronted with the difficult decision to grant recognition to student groups whose views they find offensive, principled leadership requires student representatives to adhere to their First Amendment obligation to uphold the rights of those they represent, even when it is difficult or unpopular to do so. 

FIRE calls on the WSU student senate to affirm the First Amendment rights of its constituents, and hold fast to its constitutional obligations, by recognizing TPUSA at its next meeting.

Voting for recognition isn’t an endorsement of a prospective group’s views. Instead, it’s a necessary reaffirmation that students have the right to organize around whatever views they may hold, even if others firmly reject those views. The existence of thousands of vibrant student groups recognized by their student government — including those advancing opposing or unpopular ideas — stands as a testament to decades of capable student leaders understanding the value of fostering a diverse array of clubs on campus.

FIRE calls on the WSU student senate to affirm the First Amendment rights of its constituents, and hold fast to its constitutional obligations, by recognizing TPUSA at its next meeting. 


Schools:  Wichita State University

Cases:  Wichita State University: Student Senate Delays Vote on Recognition of TPUSA Chapter Over Gadsden Flag