College accused of racial segregation, banning CRT criticism, using COVID to punish conservatives

Elizabethtown College has refused to answer warnings that it violated federal and state law and its own policies over past six months, civil liberties watchdog says.

Updated: March 24, 2022 - 11:01pm

In less than six months, a private college has allegedly enforced racial segregation, prohibited a student group from opposing critical race theory, and punished the same group for privately raising travel funds to avoid the college's COVID-19 rules.

Elizabethtown College, colloquially known as "Etown," is not interested in defending its actions, according to a civil liberties watchdog that has repeatedly warned the Church of the Brethren-affiliated Pennsylvania school it's violating federal and state law and even its own policies.

"At this point one has to wonder: Is Etown intentionally flouting its own policies, or does it not even understand them?" the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in a blog post Wednesday. 

The college didn't respond to queries about the allegations, and FIRE told Just the News that Etown has yet to respond to any letter it has sent since October. That reticence extends to "transitional" President Betty Rider, whose official Twitter account is private. 

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For Rider's predecessor, who resigned in January, the Twitter account was public at least until August — two months before the college's "Forum on White Supremacy and Global Colonization," which included a three-part event that tacitly excluded whites.

"Note: This group will be a space for people who identify as individuals of color," according to a flyer for the event, which ran Oct. 12, Oct. 21 and Nov. 2. Its calendar listing is phrased similarly: "for participants who identify as individuals of color."

"It is settled law that colleges like Etown — regardless of purpose or intent —may not deprive students or faculty of educational resources or opportunities on the basis of their race or ethnicity," FIRE warned the college a day before the first part, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Pennsylvania law, which both apply to private institutions.

Etown was already on FIRE's radar for ordering the college's Turning Point USA chapter to rename its "Critical Hate Theory" event and then banning its proposed speaker, Joe Basrawi, a former mayoral candidate in Allentown who had already booked his travel.

In a Sept. 23 meeting with TPUSA leaders including President Alex Russo, Dean of Students Nichole Gonzalez objected that Basrawi was not a "Critical Race Theorist" and would be "intentionally disruptive" to the community, according to Russo's email memorializing the meeting

Because black students are "extremely marginalized" at Etown, the college can't allow an "alternative or negative view of CRT," Russo characterized Gonzalez as saying. She allegedly suggested an event balanced with critical race theorists. TPUSA ended up holding the event off-campus. FIRE said the college has never disputed Russo's account of the meeting.

Etown violated its "morally and legally binding commitments" on freedom of expression, made in the student handbook and "Blue Jay Pledge of Integrity," by regulating the viewpoints TPUSA can express at its events, FIRE warned the college Oct. 5. It allegedly misstated its own club handbook by faulting TPUSA for publicizing the event before it was formally approved.

The college is also in violation of its accreditation standards, which require a demonstrated "commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, [and] freedom of expression," the letter said. Officials "cannot preferentially shape the debate" by restricting student speech.

Etown brought down the hammer on TPUSA in February for allegedly violating COVID rules, placing the club on probation through December and subjecting its postings, "club-related business," fundraisers and travel to prior review by campus officials. 

The college also inserted an Office of Student Activities (OSA) minder into club meetings and required TPUSA leaders to take OSA training, according to a Feb. 16 letter to Russo that followed a "Group Accountability Board" hearing the same day.

The club president had run a GoFundMe campaign for travel funds to attend TPUSA's AmericaFest, since the chapter couldn't ensure the national organization would comply with Etown's single-room requirement for unvaccinated students participating in "a college sponsored travel activity."

The board found TPUSA guilty of violating Etown fundraising policy, which "shy[s] away" from using GoFundMe; making a "fraudulent" statement on GoFundMe that the college wouldn't fund the trip; and using the Etown name on the fundraiser, which "a reasonable person" would assume is connected to the college.

It also penalized the club for not "actively upholding" campus mask mandates because TPUSA served food at its meetings.

FIRE's Feb. 24 letter and March 21 followup accused the college of violating its policies again with the "dishonesty" charge, prior-review sanction and limited grounds for appeal.

Russo made an "objectively reasonable interpretation" of Etown's COVID travel policy when he claimed it "would not be willing to provide material support for an event that does not qualify for college support," FIRE said. Even if the college might have waived the requirement for TPUSA, Russo's text to club members "shows he believed otherwise."

The Supreme Court has said prior review is "the most serious and the least tolerable infringement" of expressive rights, the letter said. Etown's application is particularly broad, not only covering unrelated materials but also "no specific guidelines or timetable" for approval, giving administrators "unbridled discretion" at odds with campus policies.

Etown's most flagrant violation of its own rules may be its refusal to hear TPUSA's Feb. 22 appeal, according to the March 21 letter. It claimed "procedural error or new information that would significantly affect the outcome" were the only grounds for appeal.

The club handbook explicitly provides other grounds: The finding is "not supported by the preponderance of the evidence" and penalties are not "appropriate for the violation(s)." TPUSA cited both in its appeal, FIRE said. 

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