CHICAGO, October 18, 2010—DePaul University is engaging in unjust and deceptive viewpoint discrimination against student organizations despite its promise to support "robust debate and exposure to differing points of view." After DePaul manipulated its student organization policy to deny equal treatment to Students for Cannabis Policy Reform—a point of view the university evidently disfavors—the group came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"DePaul University promises student groups freedom of expression, but instead delivers censorship," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "If DePaul wants its guarantees of free inquiry and debate to be taken seriously, it should immediately stop tilting the playing field against certain ideas."
In the spring of 2010, DePaul student Jeff Kramer and fellow students submitted an application for official recognition of their group, Students for Cannabis Policy Reform. Official recognition gives a group access to 17 different benefits including "Involvement Fair Participation," posting pre-approved flyers of certain types on designated bulletin boards, and room reservation privileges. Full "registration" grants a group two additional benefits, including access to Student Activity Fee funding.
DePaul held up Kramer’s application for several months. Finally, on September 15, 2010, Director of Student Life Suzanne Kilgannon denied recognition to the group, stating, "Despite our best arguments, our vice president feels very strongly that having an approved group on campus would send an institutional message that he believes we are not prepared to manage."
FIRE wrote DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider on September 30. FIRE’s letter pointed out that DePaul’s discrimination violated its own promises of free speech in its Student Handbook, which states: "Students have the right to their own ideas, beliefs and political associations." FIRE also noted that recognizing a group "does not constitute an act of expression by the university itself"—particularly since the university already recognizes over 200 student groups with conflicting missions. These include the LGBTQA activist group Act Out, the "radical" Activist Student Union, the Catholic Student Union, DePaul College Republicans, DePaul Conservative Alliance, DePaul Democrats, Feminist Front, Hillel, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Students for the Advancement of Gender Awareness, and many more.
DePaul Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle responded to FIRE’s letter on October 7. He defended DePaul’s discrimination, arguing that recognized student organizations must "be congruent with our institutional goals regarding the health and well-being of our students." Doyle argued that DePaul based its decision on "[c]onsiderable research indicat[ing] that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations."
In addition to ignoring DePaul’s promises of free expression to students, Doyle’s response misconstrues the aim of Kramer’s group. Students for Cannabis Policy Reform’s stated purpose is to educate legislators and the general public about perceived flaws in current cannabis policy, not to use the drug. The group’s mission is "to lobby and influence, by legal means, local representatives and lawmakers to reform the laws and policies regarding the Cannabis Sativa plant. Emphasis will also be put on informing the public of the advantages or benefits of such policy reform." Doyle’s contention that the group’s proposed activities would somehow endanger "the health and well-being of our students" or lead to "unhealthy" decision-making is unfounded.
"DePaul has laid bare the heart of the problem at so many universities—it is more interested in ‘managing messages’ and marketing than it is in providing a true marketplace of ideas," said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. "DePaul has betrayed its promises in favor of spin doctoring. Whatever one thinks about drug policy reform, everyone can agree that DePaul is far from the free university it pretends to be."
DePaul also maintains highly restrictive, content-based policies for official approval of flyers and handbills and for restricting the content of student organization websites.
"DePaul places so many restrictions on the expression of student organizations that its supposed commitment to free speech on campus strains credulity," said Kissel.
In 2006, DePaul shut down a student organization’s "affirmative action bake sale" on campus and then charged the students with "harassment." This followed DePaul’s 2005 dismissal of a professor for arguing with Palestinian students and its censorship of students’ peaceful protest of controversial scholar Ward Churchill using a vague ban on "propaganda."
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 on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
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