Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) is a national, conservative organization with student chapters on many college campuses. It was founded by William F. Buckley and others. But it has been denied recognition as an official, registered club at University of California/Santa Clara three times in the past, most recently this past June.
All that changed when the school administration recently overruled the June decision of the school’s student government. The student senate had denounced YAF’s choice of speakers, such as Ben Shapiro, a popular conservative pundit, and openly criticized the group as “Islamophobic” and causing “emotional harm” to the campus LGBT community. At the time, the university administration supported the decision of the student government.
Registered status provides a club with access to a portion of student activity fees with which to hold events, and allows clubs access to campus facilities and communication channels to promote their events and message.
First Amendment advocacy groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pushed back on behalf of YAF in two letters contending the student government did not base its rejection of YAF on a “viewpoint-neutral basis” but was instead clearly motivated by “viewpoint-discriminatory animus.” As a government-owned institution, the university is bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, which requires decisions such as these to be made on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
The university’s change of heart was communicated to YAF by letter dated September 28, 2019, authored by Jeanne Rosenberger, the Vice Provost for Student Life. Rosenberger has earlier defended the action by the student government denying YAF registered status. In her letter she states: “Over the course of the summer, I reviewed all of the materials again, as well as my notes from meetings with student leaders at the end of the term. Although there were several reasons given for why some ASG Senators voted against recognizing YAF, my further review led me to a different conclusion than was communicated in June. I regret that we were unable to meet over the summer to speak directly about my decision.”
It’s wonderful that the university finally changed its mind and did the right thing. It should be applauded for that. But UC Santa Clara, like other public colleges and universities around the country, are too eager to allow liberal-leaning student governments to handle campus club issues that are fraught with First Amendment implications. It’s a stretch to expect 18 to 22-year-old student senators to grasp the nuances of “viewpoint discrimination,” even with the university’s lawyer in the room.
Vigilance is the key to protecting the First Amendment rights of students on college campuses. With groups such as FIRE and Alliance Defending Freedom available to intervene in situations where rights have been violated, students and clubs have no reason to “go it alone” against the “Goliaths” of student government and university administrations.