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Syracuse mum on rejecting conservative club for requiring members to praise the Constitution

Conservatives are ‘inflammatory’ but socialists are not?

Syracuse University refused to recognize a conservative student group based on its viewpoint, but the only legal recourse for the students may be a breach-of-contract claim, a civil liberties group told The College Fix.

A review board faulted Young Americans for Freedom for requiring members to affirm the Sharon Statement, a 1960 declaration of conservative principles, saying it contradicts the private university’s statement on nondiscrimination.

Because the Sharon Statement requires students to believe in the “superiority” of the U.S. Constitution, it is “exclusionary to international students and other individuals,” the board wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Justine Murray, president of the nascent group.

The membership requirements are “unreasonable and not inclusive,” said the letter from the New Registered Student Organization Review Board. It also cited the “extensive control” over the student group by its parent organization, Young America’s Foundation, which distributes “inflammatory” materials to its student clubs.

The board has already rejected the club’s appeal because it was submitted a few hours after the Feb. 15 deadline.

The vice chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, Koen Weaver, told Campus Reform the rejection was hypocritical because the review board approved an application by an equally “inflammatory” group, the International Socialist Organization.

Syracuse University media relations and Office of Student Activities did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Fix last week or Monday.

The Fix asked who has authority to review the New RSO Review Board’s decisions; whether its rejection reasons are based on pre-existing written criteria; and why the board distinguished between the conservative and socialist students.

There’s not a strong legal track record for students to hold private educational institutions accountable for viewpoint discrimination, according to Adam Goldstein of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, citing few cases on the subject.

He told The Fix in a phone call Monday that FIRE is getting involved in order to pressure Syracuse to honor its free-speech promises to students and warn prospective students what they’re getting into if they attend Syracuse.

Board’s only concern prior to rejection: ‘we did not have a faculty advisor yet’

The Sharon Statement does not specifically praise the “superiority” of the Constitution. It calls America’s governing document “the best arrangement yet devised for empowering government to fulfill its proper role, while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power.”

It says the “genius” of the Constitution is “the division of powers,” which gives the states and the people “primacy” in “those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government.”

According to the review board, recognizing the club with this provision would violate “Article XI [of the] Statement of Non-Discrimination.” It’s not clear whether this specific part of the policy is posted online; the Feb. 12 letter doesn’t include links to cited policies.

Syracuse has a Non-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy Statement that says it prohibits discrimination based on “political or social affiliation,” but its online policies are not categorized by article number.

While the review board cited the broad discretion of the Young America’s Foundation over its student chapters as cause for concern, it also judged the parent organization’s viewpoints as “contradictory to the educational mission” of the university.

Young America’s Foundation “has demonstrated a pattern of past practice of supporting discourse via printed materials and/or other means that are deemed inflammatory,” it told Murray, the club president. These include a “Patriot Pack” given to campus chapters that shows an airplane flying into the World Trade Center.

The parent organization provides each student chapter with support, resources and materials used to spread its message on campus. They include “activism projects and resources to make your club stand out [and] logistical and financial assistance to host a big name conservative speaker.”

MORE: Judge rules Syracuse can ignore contract, punish students for free speech

The review board cited other problems with the student club, including its failure to submit the “membership application” mentioned in its constitution, sections missing from its constitution, and its “undemocratic” officer appointment process, which gives the club chairman too much authority.

Murray told The Fix that her club has been seeking registered status since October but could only apply Feb. 1, when new chapters are added for spring semester.

“The only concern the Review Board shared with me prior to our rejection letter, was that we did not have a faculty advisor yet,” Murray wrote in a Facebook message. The club has “three leads” on possible advisors, but their decision is partly based on the club’s approval as an RSO.

The board seemed to understand the club’s point that it didn’t need a “contractual agreement” with an advisor at this point, because new RSOs can’t conduct official business, she said: “[M]embers nodded their heads in agreement.” The club sent the board the missing part of its constitution that was mentioned in the rejection letter, Murray said.

“We stated that in the eyes of the Review Board, YAF’s call to ‘Never Forget’ is a new form of terror, while the University’s International Socialist Organization’s calls to abolish the brave men and women of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and demands that capitalism die are privileges and the duty of a political organization,” she continued. “We asked where is the fair judgment in this.”

Weaver, the vice chairman, told Campus Reform the board’s approval of the socialist group shows the “obvious political bias, if not the liberal indoctrination agenda of the Office of Student Activities.” He and Murray said the Syracuse chapter of the ISO posted flyers that read “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a reference to Israel’s destruction.

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Like chess club asking members ‘to be interested in chess’

FIRE’s Goldstein sent a letter to Syracuse President Kent Syverud on Friday, warning that its rejection of the YAF chapter was done “in a manner that is explicitly viewpoint-discriminatory.”

The university is “morally and contractually bound” to honor its promises of free expression and association to students in at least three policies, said Goldstein, program officer in FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. He cited policies on “campus disruption,” student rights and “anti-harassment.”

“Syracuse cannot refuse to recognize a group because it organizes around a shared belief system,” Goldstein continued. The YAF membership policy is little different than a chess club that asks prospective members “to be interested in chess,” and “does not exclude any protected class.”

The club has “little reason to follow through on compliance with bureaucratic regulations” regarding the review board’s legitimate reasons for denying recognition, such as missing procedural provisions, he told Syverud (below). That’s because “the university has expressly committed to rejecting the group based on its views.”

The “inflammatory” views of Young America’s Foundation’s are “irrelevant” to the review board’s obligation to protect even “unpopular viewpoints,” Goldstein said. The Supreme Court has specifically upheld the right of organizations to share their views in a “provocative and challenging” manner.

Though it’s “impossible to tell how much of the Board’s denial was based on the viewpoint of the group,” Goldstein said there was no question that the board’s “viewpoint-based objection to this chapter would prevent its recognition even in the absence of compliance with content-neutral rules.”

Goldstein told The Fix that Syracuse is sending mixed messages by rejecting the club’s application. Judging a group’s speech “inflammatory” is arbitrary and does not cross the line into discrimination, he said.

Though FIRE cannot bring a credible legal threat against Syracuse for discriminating against the club, Goldstein said it wants to at least raise awareness of the issue, which is common on college campuses. FIRE hasn’t received a response from the university yet.

FIRE has publicly warned Syracuse going back several years that it was violating its free-speech promises to students and risking breach-of-contract litigation.

A trial judge recently refused to hold Syracuse to its contract language, though, after it punished fraternity pledges for performing in private satirical skits. FIRE called the ruling “contradictory” and “flawed.”

MORE: Syracuse drops allegations against student blogger after FIRE diss

IMAGES: Mike Focus/Shutterstock, Young America’s Foundation screenshot, Syracuse University screenshot

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About the Author
Maggie Malecki -- Pennsylvania State University