FIRE First Letter to USF President Judy Genshaft, October 15, 2010

By October 15, 2010

October 15, 2010

President Judy Genshaft
University of South Florida
Office of the President
4202 E. Fowler Avenue, ADM 241
Tampa, Florida 33620

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (813-974-5530)

Dear President Genshaft:

As you might recall from our correspondence in 2002, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, free speech, legal equality, due process, the right of conscience, and academic freedom on America’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws, will give you a greater sense of our identity and recent activities.

FIRE is concerned by the University of South Florida’s (USF’s) decision to delay and possibly deny recognition to a student organization named Young Americans for Freedom at USF (YAF) because it has deemed YAF’s mission and name to be too similar to the existing USF student organization Young Americans for Liberty at USF (YAL). Since other student groups that share similar names and missions have been granted recognition at USF, YAF is being held to an impermissible double standard which threatens freedom of speech and freedom of association at USF.

The following is our understanding of the facts. Please inform us if you believe we are in error.

In April or May 2010, USF student Anthony Davis submitted an application to create a recognized YAF chapter at USF, following the guidelines mandated by USF’s 2010-2011 Student Organization Handbook. One of the guidelines is that “A student organization with the same purpose/goals cannot currently exist.” (emphasis in original).

On September 23, Student Programs Coordinator Edna Jones Miller finally e-mailed Davis regarding his application. Miller stated:

After reviewing the mission of the proposed organization, it was determined that the purpose of your proposed organization may be fairly similar, if not the same, as another existing organization that is established at the USF Tampa Campus. … One of the requirements for establishing a new organization on campus is that no other student organization can exist with the same or similar mission/ purpose.

[...]

Perhaps you can possibly attempt to clarify your mission statement to demonstrate how your proposed organization is significantly different than any other existing organization. That will also help us to understand the distinctive philosophical approach of the group beyond the obvious observation of similar names [between YAF and YAL].

Miller quoted the two groups’ mission statements as evidence for her concern:

[YAF:] To uphold the Sharon Statement of our national organization, which can be found at http://www.yaf.com/[sharon]statement/

[YAL:] The mission of Young Americans for Liberty is to train, educate, and mobilize youth activists committed to “winning on principle”. Our goal is to cast the leaders of tomorrow and reclaim the policies, candidates, and direction of our government.

We enclose the Sharon Statement, which appears to have been unchanged since 1960, as clarification of YAF’s mission. The Sharon Statement is a list of things that YAF argues that “young conservatives believe,” such as the beliefs

THAT foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

THAT liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

and many more. This mission of upholding certain beliefs seems quite distinct from YAL’s mission of developing “youth activists” with practical goals.

The implication of Miller’s response is that YAF and YAL are interchangeable, as though students who are interested in upholding certain beliefs as “young conservatives” should be expected to simply join YAL and be content with YAL’s focus on activism. Yet, many students who may be attracted to YAF might not choose to be members of YAL, and vice versa.

In any case, it is not the place of a USF administrator to judge whether two student organizations have “philosophical approach[es]” that are too similar in order to determine whether they both may coexist with campus recognition. USF’s explicit policy is that student organizations may not have “the same” purpose and goals, yet Miller has redefined the policy to involve her own judgment of whether two groups have goals that are “fairly similar, if not the same.” This level of discretion is untenable. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional.” (Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 394 U.S. 147, 150-51 (1969) (emphasis added)).

Miller’s treatment of YAF also reveals a double standard by which YAF has been unfairly judged. USF has permitted the following sets of organizations with “fairly similar, if not the same” goals to coexist:

1. USF has two African-American student organizations, the Black Student Union and the NAACP.

2. While USF has approved a Latin American Student Association, it also recognizes the Mexican American Student Association and the Colombian Student Association. In addition to USF’s Caribbean Cultural Exchange, USF recognizes the Dominican American Student Association, the Jamaican Alliance Movement, and the Cuban American Student Association.

3. USF recognizes dozens of student religious organizations, most of them Christian. Christians on Campus has the following mission statement:

We hold the faith that is common to all believers. Through daily prayer, Bible reading, and Christian fellowship we are growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and unto the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Pet. 3:18).

Is USF truly prepared to ask the various Christian groups on campus how they differ theologically from Christians on Campus-and from all of the others? Similarly, is USF prepared to tell members of the Black Student Union that their organization is redundant and will be derecognized, because of the existence of the NAACP? Or to inform the Jamaican Alliance Movement that they should simply join the Caribbean Cultural Exchange, because the two groups are “fairly similar, if not the same” in the eyes of USF administrators? The double standard at work here is readily evident-and simply unacceptable.

The Supreme Court has famously stated that “[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) This marketplace, however, cannot function if new student groups are subject to the discretion of administrators with the power to decide which group identities are distinct enough to be worthy of USF’s imprimatur and which group identities are merely superfluous. USF’s decision to delay and possibly deny a grant of recognition to Young Americans for Freedom at USF because it might seem too similar to Young Americans for Liberty at USF violates YAF’s First Amendment right to freedom of association, which USF as a public university is morally and legally bound to uphold.

FIRE asks that the University of South Florida correct its error and recognize YAF, provided that the group has fulfilled all valid requirements for official recognition. FIRE does not directly litigate, but we are committed to using all the resources at our disposal to see this matter to a just conclusion. Please spare USF the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights.

We respectfully ask for a response to this letter by November 2, 2010.

Sincerely,

 

Adam Kissel
Vice President of Programs

Encl.

cc:

Edna Jones Miller, Student Programs Coordinator
Kevin M. Banks, Dean for Students
Jennifer Meningall, Vice President for Student Affairs

Schools: University of South Florida Cases: University of South Florida: Administrator Confuses Conservatives and Libertarians to Deny Group’s Recognition