Santa Clara University denies recognition to conservative student group

I remember the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) when I was in college in the late Sixties. The members were Republicans, pro-Nixon, and were largely ignored by the rest of the students. But the group served as a nucleus for conservatives, and I don’t remember anything particularly invidious about it. Reading over the Wikipedia entry on the group, I find myself opposed to everything they stand for, but hey, they’re not Nazis—they’re conservatives and libertarians. They certainly deserve a place alongside other political groups in American universities.

Well, that doesn’t hold true any longer. Conservative groups, like pro-Israel groups (e.g., WIFI at Williams College), aren’t supposed to coexist with other student groups because they supposedly make students feel “unsafe.” This is one of the ridiculous but often effective fictions promulgated by the Woke.

Now, according to the Foundation for Individuals Rights in Education (FIRE), the student government at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in the eponymous California town, has denied recognition twice to YAF, as reported in the article below (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

Last week, the Santa Clara University Associated Student Government denied recognition to a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom over the student group’s political stances. The rejection is the second time in a month that the ASG refused recognition to YAF over hostility to the group’s conservative viewpoints.

On April 25, the student government held a contentious debate on whether to grant official student group status to the YAF chapter, which would have given the club the right to request funding and schedule speakers, among other privileges and benefits. The discussion swiftly veered from YAF’s successful completion of the procedural requirements for recognition to its political advocacy and stances. One student senator questioned whether “students would feel unsafe” because of the group’s ideology, and others commented on the perceived harmfulness of YAF’s advocacy for free speech. Many student government members were sharply divided over the need for another conservative or political club on campus, and criticized YAF’s alleged ties to Turning Point USA and the Republican Party.

The student judicial court voted 4-1 to overturn the denial of YAF as a student club. Then the University’s general counsel explained to the student government that the YAF must be certified if it met the general requirements for student groups, which it did. Finally, on May 17 FIRE wrote a letter to Santa Clara’s President saying that disallowing YAF as a group constituted “viewpoint discrimination”. That letter included statements from the university’s own promises of free speech, even though it’s a private school and doesn’t have to abide by the First Amendment:

While SCU is a private university and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it is both morally and contractually bound to honor the explicit, repeated, and unequivocal promises of freedom of expression it has made to its students.

For example, SCU’s mission and goals statement, set forth in part in its student handbook, provides that SCU is “dedicated to” developing “a community wherein freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression enjoy the highest priorities.” Accordingly, the university pledges to “acknowledge, affirm, and defend the right of every member of the campus community t  freedom of expression [and] freedom of association. . . .”

SCU’s “Student Events, Activities, and Organizations” policy makes similar commitments, elaborating on these principles:

We are best served by an educational experience enriched by exposure to differing, and, indeed, to antithetical, opinion. Debating of “uncomfortable” ideas or points of view ought not to be shunned just because it is uncomfortable, for it may stimulate us to think and to think seriously. Thoughtful dialogue in search of truth leads to critical thinking, informed learning, and an honest exchange of facts, beliefs, and points of view. The belief system allowed to go untested is likely to be found weakest in the face of argumentative challenge.

Because as a university we remain irrevocably committed to intellectual discourse, we acknowledge, affirm, and defend the right of every member of the campus community to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of exercise of faith in accordance with the University’s stated mission and goals.

After all this information, still no dice. As FIRE wrote,

Unfortunately, the ASG did not heed our call, or the advice of SCU counsel, as YAF was again denied recognition on May 23 after the first vote was overturned by the student judicial court on procedural grounds.

This is viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple, and cannot stand, at least without the University looking like an ideological bully. As I said, I disagree with every aspect of the YAF, but it still deserves to stand alongside more liberal organizations. Or does Santa Clara want its students to hear only one side?

You can register your dismay (or approbation, if you’re censorious) by going to the page linked to this screenshot, and filling in a brief objection form. I’ve already sent in my beef. When you click on “email,” you can send either a pre-written email or write one yourself, which is what I did.

My email:

The student government’s decision to deny status to the Young Americans for Freedom is unconscionable, and a violation of Santa Clara’s own policy to allow the promulgation of diverse viewpoints on campus. This is viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple, and the bias against conservative organizations gives one the impression that your school is a censorious bastion of ideological purity.

I am a liberal, and opposed to everything that YAF stands for. But, as they say, I will defend to the death their right to exist alongside other student groups. Will Santa Clara stand up for free speech?

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
The University of Chicago


  1. Mark R.
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post. I sent them an email denouncing their decision.

    I find it ironic that two California governors (Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom) are Santa Clara alumni. I’m sure they would disagree with SCU’s decision on this.

  2. KD
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I thought a nonprofit organization could not take a partisan stance, and not recognizing a student group because of its ties to the GOP seems to be an official endorsement of the Democratic Party.

    Especially if partisan affiliation outside of the Democratic Party creates an “unsafe space” for students. We’re not talking about Hezbollah.

    Can St. Clara keep its tax exemption?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      My understanding is that tax-exempt section 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited only from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for elective public office. They do not generally risk their tax-exempt status by engaging in other types of political speech.

      • KD
        Posted June 14, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Saying we won’t acknowledge student groups affiliated with the GOP isn’t directly intervening in politics? What if they paid for a sign that said “Don’t vote for GOP candidates”? What about “Only vote for Democrats”?

        It seems pretty close to the line of political endorsement when you start excluding half of the population for thought crimes. Although perhaps the other poster is correct, they really mean “Only vote for Democrats OR Hezbollah”, thereby protecting viewpoint diversity (at least for about 15 years).

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted June 14, 2019 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

          You asked what the rule is; I stated what it is. I wasn’t endeavoring to justify it as a matter of policy.

          Under extant IRS regulations, tax-exempt organizations are legally entitled to engage in advocacy on behalf of political issues; they cannot engage in advocacy on behalf of specific political candidates. I don’t think anything Oberlin college has done here can be construed as advocacy on behalf of a particular candidate. Do you?

    • max blancke
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Hezbollah is already represented, at least through proxies.

      But literal support for terrorists and their ideologies apparently does not make anyone feel “unsafe”.

  3. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    On this same subject there’s an interesting article at The Daily Beast about a conservative Catholic school doing the same thing to its LGBT students:

    Since the only reason we’re finding out about this is because Sparks is a celebrity and his emails* were made public in the course of a court case I suspect that this kind of thing is extremely prevalent in faith schools.

    I’ve never read any books by Nicholas Sparks(I get him mixed up with the guy who wrote One Day) but he sure comes across as a quite stupendous turd.

    *which, if you read them in the link, are mini-masterpieces in the art of cowing.

  4. Posted June 13, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Why are not these student governments subject to a charter or constitution that prevents such arbitrary and discriminatory decisions?

    • Posted June 14, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      That’s what I wanted to know, too. At McGill, the group in question *might* into funding problems (there were restrictions on external funding for nominally student groups).

  5. Posted June 13, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

  6. DrBrydon
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I continue to question the rationale behind student government. It seems like pre-school for proto-bureaucrats. Perhaps it’s time a few student government members were sued directly?

  7. Derek Freyberg
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Caveat: I’m an SCU (law school)alumnus.
    But, with respect to our host, the post should not be “Santa Clara University denies recognition to conservative student group”, rather, as FIRE said, “Santa Clara student government denies recognition to student group”. I am confident that the University itself will deal with the situation.

  8. Historian
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    The incident described in the post is appalling. Certainly, YAF must be allowed as an organization on the campus. But, once again, we are dealing with an anecdote. It is hard to determine how threatened free speech is nationwide. For example, if in 2019 there should be, let us say, 20 incidents of free speech suppression on campuses while 10 years there were only 5, is this something to be concerned about? Where do we draw the line? I don’t know.

    Lee Bollinger is president of Columbia University in New York City. He is described by the First Amendment Encyclopedia as “a legal scholar of the First Amendment and freedom of speech, is best known for advocating tolerance theory, which argues that broad acceptance for expression will increase tolerance and diversity of ideas.” He has recently posed an article on the Atlantic site entitled “Free Speech on Campus Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You.” He claims that “First, universities are, today, more hospitable venues for open debate than the nation as a whole. Second, not only have fierce arguments over where to draw the line on acceptable speech been a familiar occurrence in the United States for the past century, but such dialogue has also been indispensable to building a society that embraces the First Amendment.” He goes to discuss how the First Amendment was under attack in previous eras and survived.

    I am always wary of trying to prove points by anecdote. I know that much of what historians have written about the past is based on anecdotes because hard statistical evidence is not available. So, we are in a situation of dueling anecdotes. Even if statistics are available, they need to be analyzed as to what they mean. My conclusion, subject to revision should more hard empirical evidence become available, is that I am not prepared to accept the right wing drum beating that colleges and universities in aggregate have over just the last few years have been taken over by lefties (this has always been the case since the 1960s, perhaps earlier) determined to squash free speech. On the other hand, vigilance is in order. Articles such as the post can play a role in making sure that what may be a minor problem from growing into a major one.

    As an aside, I note that Bollinger’s article is supported by the Charles Koch Foundation. Charles is one of the famous billionaire Koch brothers, devoted to supporting right wing causes. One would think that Charles Koch would not be happy with an article that runs counter to the right wing narrative. I don’t know what to make of this.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Far as I’m concerned the members of Young Americans for Freedom are headed to hell in a dumbwaiter. But their fellow students have no right to stop them, other than by policy-and-moral suasion.

    The YAF, as I recall, was founded by Bill Buckley, as an outgrowth of his own mid-century college experience, as recounted in his book God and Man at Yale. When I hit campus in the early Seventies the YAF seemed moribund, and the term “young Republican” all but oxymoronic. Yet the high tide of campus liberalism crested not long thereafter and began to roll back with the rise of Reaganism.

    I’m writing to these west-coast Jesuits to register my disapproval.

  10. Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I get the conflict of this being a free speech violation, or a “viewpoint discrimination”, I agree and I think I understand it. But playing the ignorant here for a bit, what if this conservative group, by its simple nature of being conservative, has some hidden-from-plain-sight, intolerant and authoritarian views that plans to promote?

    I recently finished reading “Moral Politics” by George Lakoff, and I am finishing for a second time, “Conservatives without Conscience” by John Dean. No doubt I am being biased here, but I find it hard to believe that a conservative anything nowadays doesn’t promote somewhat authoritarian, right-wing (christian maybe), and a parade of other nutty and illiberal ideas.

    The liberal view would be not to asume bad intentions and give the benefit o the doubt. But most conservatives are more Trump/Nixon/W conservatives, and not Goldwater conservatives.

    To anyone that replies, please bear with me, I’m Canadian trying to play in your sandbox.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      … what if this conservative group, by its simple nature of being conservative, has some hidden-from-plain-sight, intolerant and authoritarian views that plans to promote?

      Under the rationale of our First Amendment Free Speech clause, speech can be prohibited only if it is likely to incite imminent lawless action — only if, that is, such lawless action is likely to occur before the speech in question can be counteracted by countervailing good speech.

      Seeing as how the YAF has been around now for over a half century with only varying degrees of success to show in bringing about its “intolerant and authoritarian views,” I’m pretty sure it flunks that test with flying colors. 🙂

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and welcome to the box, Dennis, the sand is great for playing.

        • Posted June 13, 2019 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Thank you Ken. I’ve been reading Jerry’s website since it’s inception; but rarely comment. Too shy I guess. Also, I mostly read it on my phone, while on break, etc.

          So catching up, I just read that previous piece about Andrew Sullivan and his bit about “I’m an adult. This is a free country.” from June 8. I get that, too. It reminds of that scene in The American President, I hope this doesn’t break Da Roolz. I’ve never pasted a link to a video:

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted June 14, 2019 at 6:33 am | Permalink

            Aaron Sorkin can get a bit preachy sometimes with his dialogue, but the guy has quite a way with words, as that clip amply demonstrates.

    • max blancke
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      “But most conservatives are”

      I don’t think this is necessarily accurate. The noisy fringes of any group are unlikely to really represent the views of the majority.

      A person who was center-left a decade ago, if they did not modify their views, would likely be classified as far right these days. You might be a conservative just by not showing sufficient enthusiasm for international Socialism or open borders.

    • aljones909
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      “what if this conservative group, by its simple nature of being conservative, has some hidden-from-plain-sight, intolerant and authoritarian views that plans to promote?”
      I think the idea of free speech is you are allowed to speak in favour of any views (with the usual caveats).
      Maoists, Leninists, Stalinists and Marxists have had student organisations since the 60’s. I would say they were promoting intolerant and authoritarian views. They seem to have operated without obstruction.

  11. Matt Young
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Did you mean “opprobrium”? Approbation is, sort of, the opposite of censorious.

%d bloggers like this: