‘Yikes, nope, denied’
The University of Scranton allowed its student government to block the chartering of a conservative student organization, despite promising to protect students’ freedom of expression.
The Jesuit institution did not assign its legal counsel to respond to the legal arguments raised by a civil liberties group that challenged the administration’s indifference to the move. Instead, it tasked a student life official with brushing aside the concerns in a perfunctory one-page letter.
Though most Student Government members initially voted to charter the Turning Point USA chapter two months ago, the body later determined it had misread its charter, which requires a supermajority for approval of new clubs.
The proceedings were marked by anti-conservative bias, TPUSA chapter leaders told The College Fix. They pointed to the student body president’s admission on Instagram that he would veto approval of the club if the Student Government didn’t vote “yikes, nope, denied” (below).
In addition, the body questioned TPUSA club applicants for three hours at a public meeting on Oct. 4. Senators focused on the political positions and agenda of the students and figures associated with TPUSA, including the group’s 26-year-old founder Charlie Kirk, according to those meeting minutes.
For example, Senator Claire Sunday said there was “obviously a lot of controversy around this club” and asked why the national TPUSA “gives students a sort of a radical foundation if the club is just meant to promote politics.”
In a Nov. 13 letter to the administration, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said senators “engaged in naked viewpoint-discrimination” at that meeting, as evidenced by their focus on “the political positions of the proposed chapter.”
The university “has promised its students freedom of expression” in its Statement of Philosophy, the group said, and must fulfill this promise by reversing the club’s rejection and facilitating the club approval process in a “viewpoint-neutral manner.”
The courts of Pennsylvania, where the university is based, have “held that the relationship between a student and a privately funded college is contractual in nature,” wrote Katlyn Patton, program officer in FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program and Public Records. That means the university “is morally and contractually bound to honor the explicit promises of freedom of expression” it has made to students.
The administration did not respond to the voluminous case law on viewpoint discrimination cited in Patton’s letter. In a Nov. 26 response, Vice President for Student Life Robert Davis simply said the “proposed club did not meet the two-thirds threshold, and, as a result, was not chartered as a club.”
The Office of the General Counsel did not respond to Fix phone and email queries last week about the case law cited by FIRE. A spokesperson responded on behalf of the administration and general counsel but did not answer Fix questions about the case law, either.
“It’s unfortunate that even after making a Senate approved amendment, our club’s chartering was still denied due to political bias,” Michael Abromovage, the vice president of the TPUSA chapter, told The Fix in a text.
“yikes, nope, denied”
This cannot stand.
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) December 5, 2019
‘Go back to the drawing board’
The prospective club had 37 members when the Student Government debated whether to charter it Oct. 4, according to meeting minutes (below) provided to The Fix by Noah Kraft, the chapter’s treasurer.
President Fahad Ashraf had already recused himself from the vote because of his September Instagram post that promised to veto the Senate’s potential approval of the club, Kraft told The Fix.
Senators repeatedly asked how TPUSA is different than the College Republicans and groups that endorse candidates, since it is explicitly conservative. Senator Joe Fullam asked how the club “stays away from the Republican Party” if it endorses Republicans.
President Cody Morgan said the club is not bound to support candidates of any given party, explaining that it “just depends on who we happen to agree with at the time.” (TPUSA chapters cannot legally endorse candidates because of the parent organization’s 501(c)(3) status.)
Senator Conor Nealon expressed concern over the “connection” between TPUSA and its political campaign sibling, Turning Point Action, which can formally endorse or oppose candidates as a 501(c)(4) organization. The latter organization also acquired Students for Trump earlier this year. Both Turning Point organizations are owned by TPUSA’s founder Kirk.
Senator Aaron Asiedu-Wiafe told the student group that it should “go back to the drawing board” to avoid associating with TPUSA. “Associating yourself with this club [TPUSA] is just going to be too stigmatizing.”
Morgan expressed his support for “being exposed to different ideas,” while Abromovage, the vice president, said the chapter will work with both “College Democrats and the College Republicans for a united voice.”
In addition to the public meeting, the Student Government held two closed-door sessions open to senators only on Oct. 4. It held a third private meeting Oct. 8.
“I really don’t like the idea of having a discussion without having them here to defend themselves,” Senator Jacob Meyers said during the public meeting, objecting to the plan to kick out non-senators: “I don’t think closed door discussion is going to be productive in that sense.”
After the third closed-door meeting, the Student Government reversed its approval, citing the two-thirds majority requirement it belatedly discovered. The TPUSA chapter members requested the minutes of the closed-door meetings and asked for the reasoning behind this decision, to no avail.
“The university is a great place and we all enjoy it here but the administration did not prevent the clear viewpoint discrimination that the senate had against us,” Kraft, the chapter treasurer, told The Fix in a text.
Seeking ‘substantive explanation as to how viewpoint discrimination is compatible’
In the university’s Nov. 26 response, the vice president for student life told FIRE the group had “inaccurately” described what happened at the Oct. 4 Student Government meeting. The chapter was rejected because “an officer erroneously announced” its approval previously, and “the error was realized after the meeting,” Davis wrote.
FIRE sent out a second letter Dec. 4 calling the vote count “irrelevant” to the “viewpoint discrimination” alleged in its first letter, based on the Oct. 4 meeting minutes. Patton, the program officer, demanded a “viewpoint-neutral reason for the rejection or, in the alternative, a substantive explanation as to how viewpoint discrimination is compatible” with the university’s promises.
The Fix reached out to Director of News and Media Relations Stan Zygmunt and Brenda Clarke, administrative assistant to the vice provost for enrollment management, multiple times on Friday via phone calls to work and cell numbers. (Zygmunt’s voicemail also refers callers to Clarke.)
Zygmunt later replied in an email on behalf of the administration and general counsel, saying the university “is dedicated to the freedom of inquiry.” Reiterating what he told FIRE, the spokesperson said the TPUSA chapter “did not receive the required two-thirds majority vote and, as a result, was not chartered as a club.”
Despite the substantive legal case FIRE is making against the university, none of the university officials queried by The Fix – including the general counsel – addressed FIRE’s argument about the university’s enforceable contractual obligations to students.
The Fix asked specifically for their response to FIRE’s request for a viewpoint-neutral denial of TPUSA’s application, whether it views its promises to students as legally binding or plans to enforce viewpoint neutrality, and why the legal case against the university didn’t warrant a response from any of its lawyers.
The Fix also asked officials about the potential relevance of a ruling that FIRE didn’t mention: John McAdams’ victory over Marquette University after it fired the professor for criticizing a colleague by name in a blog post. The Wisconsin Supreme Court said the Jesuit university breached its contract with McAdams by violating his academic freedom.
The Fix sent a subsequent email to Zygmunt in response to his Friday statement, requesting direct answers to written questions for a second time. He has not responded as of Sunday night.
As to whether FIRE is considering litigation against the university, a spokesperson told The Fix that Patton and Adam Steinbaugh, director of her program, were “leading up this case” and would talk about the civil liberties group’s plans going forward. They have not given The Fix a response as of Sunday night.
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