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Do not question:

I quote below an e-mail that was apparently sent by one of the assistant deans at University of Tulsa College of Law. (I e-mailed the assistant dean to confirm its authenticity, but did not hear back; and when I called the author to provide an opportunity to challenge the authenticity and to provide the school's side of the story, the assistant dean declined to do so.)

The gist of the message is that student groups that "undertake[] to question the legitimacy of another student organization or deliberately question[] the programs of another student organiz[a]tion" will lose their funding from the student government (funding that I assume comes from the school), and "[i]nstitutionally, . . . may jeopardize their recognition as a legitimate law school organization." Certain viewpoints are apparently now subject to official discipline at the law school.

Just to get a sense of the potential scope of the policy, note that it doesn't simply aim at rudeness (e.g., profanity or even personal insults). It applies to anyone who expresses the viewpoint that some other group, or its speakers, are improper. If a racist group set up shop at school, other groups would risk defunding for "question[ing the racist group's] legitimacy." If a group invites a speaker who is a racist, Communist, Islamo-fascist, other groups would be barred from condemning such an invitation, since that would be "deliberately question[ing] the programs of another student organization." In fact, if the policy were applied evenhandedly, then any group would risk defunding for calling for another group's defunding, since that would literally be "question[ing the other group's] legitimacy" (since the argument would be that the other group is not legitimately entitled to funding).

The University of Tulsa is a private university, so this sort of attempt to squelch internal dissent against the actions of other groups does not violate the First Amendment. (If it were a public university, the policy probably would violate the First Amendment, see Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995).) Nonetheless, while private universities legally may restrict their student groups' freedom this way — may exclude them from equal funding and potentially equal access to school resources in order to deter student expression — they nonetheless ought not do it, as a matter of professional ethics and academic freedom. (The University of Tulsa Statement on Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities specifically acknowledges the importance of student freedom of expression.)

It's true that this is just a matter of funding and school recognition (I take it that school recognition would be needed for access to classrooms, bulletin boards, and the like). Presumably individual students who engage in such speech wouldn't be subject to discipline or expulsion.

But the school is using the threat of defunding and loss of recognition as a deliberate means to prevent the expression of viewpoints that it disapproves of. The school's goal is to reduce the range of viewpoints that are available, not through persuasion but through the threat of denying groups the sorts of benefits that are seen as necessary for the group to effectively operate at the school. This is not what an institution that values academic freedom or open debate, it seems to me, should do.

"The College of Law wants to insure that every student organization feels comfortable in carrying out its mission and conducting programs to enhance law school life," the message says. Actually, they don't seem that concerned about every student organization — those that want to criticize, however politely and reasonably, other groups are certainly not made to feel comfortable. But more broadly, it seems to me that law schools shouldn't be in the business of providing "comfort" for student organizations at the expense of freedom of debate. Even if there is some room for true civility codes at private universities, even those that claim to be devoted to academic freedom, there should be no room for such attempts to suppress student viewpoints.

Here's the e-mail (all name and address omissions are by me):

Date: Thu, 04 Nov 2004 09:15:56 -0600
From: [Name omitted]
Subject: [Tulaw-students] student organizations
To: tulaw-students@mail.law.utulsa.edu

Dear Students:

This is just a reminder that the purpose of our student organizations is to provide students the opportunity to hone their leadership skills, develop special interests, and provide a service to the community. We are very privileged here at the College of Law to have a very diverse group of student organizations. Not only do these varied groups add to the richness of our law school, but they also promote learning, understanding and tolerance. In addition, each student organization is a powerful ambassador in the community for the College of Law and an important admissions recruitment representative.

In this regard, we would like all organizations to reflect on their stated missions and encourage their members to support the existence of other student organizations whether they agree or disagree with their cause. Also, the SBA has made it clear that if any student organization undertakes to question the legitimacy of another student organization or deliberately questions the programs of another student organiztion, funding for that organization will be pulled. Institutionally, that organization also may jeopardize their recognition as a legitimate law school organization.

The College of Law wants to insure that every student organization feels comfortable in carrying out its mission and conducting programs to enhance law school life. If an organization at any time feels intimitated by other groups or is uncertain about the appropriateness of a program, I welcome you to contact me or [name omitted], SBA President. We wish to be as supportive to you as possible.

I hope this information is helpful. All of you are so important to the College of Law and we applaud your many successes!

Please feel free to contact me or [name omitted] should you have any concerns about your organization or other matters.

Sincerely,

Dean [name omitted] and [name omitted], SBA President

Here also is the e-mail that may have prompted the new policy (though my source, who is not the author of the e-mail quoted below, is not positive); I wouldn't have quite written the message this way, but it seems to me to be well within the bounds of civil debate, as much as a similarly worded criticism of the Federalist Society, for instance, might be:

[Name omitted] on Thu Oct 21
Subject Line: [Tulaw-current-events] This is from the "Alliance for Justice" website...A left-wing partisan group? Judge for yourself.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear TU Students,

The group sponsoring the film "Just One Vote," The Alliance for Justice, is a fringe left-wing group. Unfortunately, the groups that have chosen to sponsor this event have failed to disclose this fact. Please visit the Alliance for Justice website and see that they have an openly partisan left-wing agenda for America — an agenda well outside the mainstream of political discourse. The excerpt below on the history of the judicial selection project is from the Alliance for Justice website. After reading this excerpt, and / or visiting their webiste, I urge you to judge for yourself where they stand. Thanks for your time. Full disclosure and fairness to both sides in this political season have prompted me to send this message.

Sincerely,

[name omitted]
Vice President
Republican Law Society

History of the Judicial Selection Project:

[Text, which seems to be copied from http://www.allianceforjustice.org/judicial/about/history/ is omitted by Volokh.]

University of Tulsa:

By the way, if any readers have first-hand knowledge of the background behind the University of Tulsa incident mentioned below, or of any further reactions by the administration or others, please do let me know. Certainly do let me know if you think I've gotten any of the facts wrong, but also if there are other facts that you think might illuminate the matter.

Freedom of speech at Tulsa.--

I was struck by something in reading our blogfather Eugene's post on the flap at Tulsa. IF the dean's email is legitimate and IF it was in response to an email from the VP of the Republican Law Society, then the dean appears to be violating or encouraging violations of his or her own policy.

The Dean says that no one (or at least no student organization) should criticize the existence or programs of a student organization, but then appears to proceed to do just that--IF he or she is responding to the letter from the Republican VP. If the link is made, then the dean threatens to pull funding from the Republican student organization. Has the dean listened to any complaints from the Alliance for Justice students (or any other student organizations) complaining about the Republican group's funding or existence? If so, then any effort to discipline the Republican group must be visited on Alliance for Justice as well. Indeed, the Republican student merely criticized the failure to disclose the political orientation of the Alliance for Justice, the dean appears to be threatening the very existence of the Republican organization.

By the way, I think there is nothing wrong with the Alliance for Justice failing to disclose its political orientation on its posters (to that extent, I disagree with the Republican student email). Nor should it be wrong for an organization to point out the political orientation of the Alliance or criticize an Alliance program, so long as that is done without seriously abusive language.

If all is as it appears to be (and it may not be), then the dean should simply apologize to the community generally and to the Republican group particularly for trying to prohibit even non-abusive, informational complaints--whether fairly made or not. It would be a great educational experience for everyone involved--from the dean to the newest law student.

It is also a test to see if the Alliance for Justice is truly interested in justice and individual rights. If they are, they will join in defending the freedom of the Republicans to criticize the Alliance, even while disagreeing with the substance of their criticism.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Freedom of speech at Tulsa.--
  2. University of Tulsa:
  3. Do not question: