DURHAM, N.C., March 29, 2010—Duke University’s Women’s Center has canceled an event about motherhood because the sponsor was engaging in pro-life expression elsewhere on campus. A Women’s Center representative told Duke Students for Life (DSFL) that "we have a problem" and an ideological "conflict" with the event, which was supposedly canceled to protect Duke women from encountering the event during the group’s "traumatizing" pro-life "Week for Life." The group’s president has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"Duke appears to have an unwritten but officially enforced stance regarding abortion that has resulted in pro-life groups being shut out of the Women’s Center," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. "This treatment is a deeply hypocritical violation of the Women’s Center’s promise that it ‘welcomes discordant viewpoints from varied experiences.’"
As part of a "Week for Life" series of events held at Duke over March 15–19, DSFL had reserved a Women’s Center space for a "Discussion with a Duke Mother" on March 18. A Duke student and mother was to speak about motherhood and the challenges of being in both roles. But the day before the event, the reservation was abruptly canceled in a voicemail to the group.
Meeting with the group on March 18, Duke Women’s Center Gender Violence Prevention Specialist Martin Liccardo said that because the event was associated with the Week for Life and DSFL, the event could not be held at the Women’s Center.
Liccardo told the group that the prospect of holding a pro-life event in the Women’s Center during Week for Life was too upsetting for some students: "We had a very strong reaction from students in general who use our space who said this was something that was upsetting and not OK. So based on that, we said, OK, we are going to respond to this and stop the program."
FIRE wrote Duke President Richard H. Brodhead on March 26, asking him to respect Duke’s promises. DSFL President Michelle Barreto also explained the situation in an op-ed this morning on the national politics website The Daily Caller.
"This treatment violates Duke’s public commitment to free speech," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. "If Duke’s promises of inclusiveness are honest, Duke must repudiate the Women’s Center’s decision and ensure that such viewpoint-based discrimination does not happen again. If Duke wants to be officially a pro-choice university where only women with ‘correct’ views get full access to campus resources, it should stop misrepresenting itself."
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.