- University turns students’ rights into a popularity contest
- Administration stands behind its hypocritical, viewpoint-discriminatory decision
SCRANTON, Pa., Dec. 5, 2019 — Administrators at the University of Scranton granted its student government unfettered authority to decide which students can form political groups on campus. Then the administration stood by when student government members abused that authority to deny recognition to a prospective conservative student group because of their political beliefs.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is publicly calling on university leadership to defend students’ right to form political groups free from political discrimination. FIRE wrote to the administration on Wednesday to say the university must respect its students’ ability to hold viewpoints that members of the student government may deem unpopular.
“I find it unfortunate that our group of bright-minded students was treated with such bias by our own student government,” said student Noah Kraft, prospective treasurer of the group. “While our goals on campus were to promote political activism, engage in friendly discussion, and even participate in community service, it was made clear that our voices have been silenced.”
The students, who wanted to form a university chapter of Turning Point USA, faced an uphill battle from the start. In response to a social media post about the formation of the group, the student government president indicated that the student government may evaluate a prospective group and determine “yikes, nope, denied.” He further implied that if TPUSA Scranton received enough student government support to become an official student organization, he would have the ability to unilaterally veto that vote.
After fielding questions from student government members for three hours, the student applicants — Cody Morgan, Michael Abromovage, Joseph Chabuel, McKayla Kathio, and David Pennino — waited while the senators held closed-door discussions about granting their club recognition. They were told on Oct. 4 that the student government approved TPUSA Scranton as a registered student organization, only to be told later — following a third closed-door meeting — that student government members were confused about the percentage of votes required for recognition. Then, student government leadership informed the students that they did not, in fact, receive enough votes to become a recognized campus organization: They had won a majority vote, but needed two-thirds of the student government — a super-majority — to agree that they should have the rights already promised to them by the University of Scranton’s administration.
“It is irrelevant whether the threshold vote required is a simple or a two-thirds majority,” wrote FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton in a letter to the university administration. “The two-thirds majority requirement simply allows a smaller faction to refuse rights based on viewpoint. In either event, the result is impermissible at an institution that promises its students freedom of expression.”
Although Scranton is a private university and is not bound by the First Amendment, it is both morally and contractually bound to honor the explicit promises of freedom of expression it makes to its students. The university’s “Statement of Philosophy” states that “[f]reedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of the individual must be preserved.”
“Becoming a recognized student group at the University of Scranton should not be a popularity contest,” said Patton. “The rejection of TPUSA Scranton after several hours of discussion and a secret meeting is a clear result of viewpoint discrimination — and FIRE will defend all students, regardless of political ideology, who want to express their views by forming a student organization.”
FIRE first wrote to President Scott R. Pilarz on Nov. 13, calling on the administration to recognize the student group and ensure that its institutional promises are enforced in a viewpoint-neutral manner.
The university responded Nov. 26, refusing to substantively defend its students’ rights.
“It’s a shame that the University of Scranton’s administration has failed to recognize that some members of our student Senate have abandoned the idea of representing the interests of their constituents,” said Cody Morgan, prospective president of TPUSA Scranton. “Instead, they used the power of their office to push their own political agendas and ideologies, which are in no way reflective of the majority of the student body, to suppress the voices and ideas of students who share opposing viewpoints.”
FIRE will continue to monitor the situation and use all the resources at its disposal to ensure a just outcome.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott R. Pilarz, President, University of Scranton: 570-941-7500; email@example.com