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College Republicans, Turning Point chapters challenge alleged viewpoint discrimination on campus

Bias by student governments and school administrators in club recognition and student activities violates these private institutions' contractual promises, civil liberties group says.

Published: May 18, 2022 5:07pm

Updated: May 18, 2022 11:21pm

From the Great Plains to New England and the Gulf of Mexico, conservative student groups are accusing their student governments and college administrators of viewpoint discrimination in vetting applications for recognition and regulation of club activities.

With help from a civil liberties group, they are alleging not First Amendment violations but rather breach of contract for the private institutions' failure to observe their own policies.

Two weeks after Dartmouth billed the College Republicans $3,600 in security fees for its event with Portland-based Antifa chronicler Andy Ngo, which the administration unilaterally moved online, its Council on Student Organizations (COSO) covertly added new rules "specifically designed to target our club and retroactively punish us," the CRs said Wednesday.

A May 5 email from COSO told the club it must "immediately" revert to its 2020 constitution and remove its new name and logo from all materials, saying its new constitution and marks violated a "Name and Constitution Changes" section of COSO rules.

This section didn't exist when the CRs uploaded the new constitution March 27, President Chloe Ezzo told Just the News. The source code for COSO's new page shows it was created at 5:27 pm April 27, and the section is missing from the drop-down menu of the "Managing an Organization" page cached hours earlier on Google.

Ezzo responded sharply May 9, accusing COSO of repeated bad faith, warning that "[o]ur legal representation is more than willing to litigate this" and encouraging the 18-member board to "resign in disgrace." She demanded COSO show evidence that other groups that changed their logos in recent years - including the CRs in 2019 - asked for its permission.

This process "has been in place for at least a decade," Associate Vice President for Communications Diana Lawrence told Just the News, pointing to the "COSO Recognition" index page. COSO determined "the changes were significant enough to require a new recognition process."

The guidelines are "normally shared with groups internally" when a name or constitution change is requested, but they were recently posted "to make the process available to the public, including media and alums," she said. "The Republican club may have ignored the protocol, but they have not been targeted or punished."

Florida's Eckerd College is legally obligated by its contractual promises to overturn its student government's rejection of the campus CR chapter, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) told President Damian Fernandez last week.

Posts on the club's Instagram account "ecconservatives" violated Eckerd College Organization of Students (ECOS) "hate speech and discrimination" rules, then-President Ava McLeod told the student newspaper, explaining the rejection. 

Distinguishing the Jan. 6 Capitol riot from racial riots, CR President Tony Salvatori had written that "going straight to the people they had an issue with" was preferable to "burning down the local Target." He also said COVID-19 vaccines "killed more people" than previous vaccines combined and "transgenderism is a mental illness."

ECOS ordered Salvatori to remove "ec" from the account's name and step down as its president as a condition of recognition, according to his March 2 meeting notes. Without recognition, the club can't invite speakers to campus "without petitioning ECOS and the university for permission," FIRE told Fernandez.

The alleged actions are out of step with Eckerd's early embrace of the so-called Chicago Principles on freedom of expression, which were also embraced by student government leaders.

Just the News got conflicting explanations from Eckerd and FIRE about the club's status. 

Assistant Vice President of Communications Robbyn Hopewell didn't comment on the allegedly viewpoint-based treatment of the CRs, saying the club failed to provide a membership roster in time for "spring chartering," as required by the conditional approval of its charter. 

FIRE's Katie Kortepeter said the administration "responded and immediately recognized the group, and we'll be publicizing that once we get a substantive response from the school, which they said will come this week." 

Iowa's Drake University, meanwhile, has rejected applications for recognition by Turning Point USA (TPUSA) three times since 2016, including this spring, leaving the chapter unable to get campus funding, reserve event space or open financial accounts.

The student government previously rejected the club in 2019 in executive session, citing both alleged disruption of their meeting by the communist Drake Comrades and also a desire to spare their members from "national media coverage" for their private deliberation and secret vote.

The rationale for the 17-2 rejection this time was public. Video shows representatives saying the chapter's views are "harmful to others and create unwelcoming, unsafe environments" but also citing its association with the "actively racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic" national TPUSA. 

"Drake student senators' statements in this case reflect considerable viewpoint-based animus as the reason for denying the group recognition," FIRE wrote to Drake last week. "This is unacceptable at a university that promises students expressive rights." 

Kortepeter said FIRE, which launched a $150,000 "free inquiry grant program" this week, is still waiting for a response. Drake didn't respond to Just the News.

Nebraska's Creighton University canceled an April 9 TPUSA event and suspended the chapter, FIRE said, for purportedly threatening the university's tax-exempt status by changing the event's name to "Take Back Nebraska" and inviting conservative activist Jack Posobiec to speak at "an off-campus continuation" hosted by a different group.

Following two unanswered warning letters from FIRE explaining IRS rules and Creighton's contractual obligations, the university lifted the suspension last week but then put TPUSA on "behavioral probation" through next semester for not notifying the university of the changes. 

The university has "violated student rights at each step," FIRE said. Creighton didn't respond to Just the News.

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