Emory University is taking a scolding from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education after its law school’s Student Bar Association refused permission for a student free speech club – over the danger that would pose.
The SBA had ruled, when the free-speech group asked for approval to operate, that, “It is disingenuous to suggest that certain topics of discussion you considered, such as race and gender, can be pondered and debated in a relaxed atmosphere when these issues directly affect and harm your peers’ lives in demonstrable and quantitative ways.”
The SBA said it would be hard to issue a charter “when there are no apparent safeguards in place to prevent potential and real harm that could result from these discussions…”
Now the FIRE has written to the law school, through Dean Mary Anne Bobinski, suggesting a resolution to the dispute.
“As our enclosed letter … more fully explained, denying the plenary benefits of recognition to a student organization because it advocates for open debate plainly contradicts Emory’s laudable commitment to free speech,” a letter from Zachary Greenberg, a senior program officer for the FIRE, said.
“This commitment makes clear that an organization shall not be denied recognition ‘because of disagreement with its mission or the viewpoints that it represents.’ Yet this rationale is the exact reason the SBA rejected EFSF, criticizing the ‘nature of this group’ because of the ‘harm that could result from … discussions’ of ‘race and gender.'”
The FIRE issued a statement confirming, “Emory University’s laudable free speech promises mean nothing to the Emory Law Student Bar Association, which denied recognition to a free-speech-focused student group because open discussion could cause ‘harm.'”
“The rejection of the Emory Free Speech Forum exemplifies the exact reason why this club must exist,” said Michael Reed-Price, president of EFSF. “Emory Law School’s Student Bar Association values free speech only so long as the ideas are in line with their viewpoint. The SBA need not agree with our ideas, they must merely tolerate our right to express them.”
The FIRE previously has given Emory a “green light” in its assessment of speech-protective policies.
“Seeking to bolster this commitment to free speech, EFSF is a non-partisan student group ‘devoted to fostering critical discourse and open dialogue surrounding important issues in law and society,'” the FIRE reported. “In October, the group applied for a charter from the SBA, which would allow EFSF to seek university funding and use university resources.”
While EFSF met all the requirements, “several SBA members objected to the speakers the group sought to host, the group’s decision to forgo moderators for its discussion-based events, and the group’s perceived similarity to the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society,” the FIRE reported.
The SBA, acting with authority handed over by the school, rejected the organization.
“The only ‘harm’ here is the SBA abusing its authority to deny these students their free speech rights,” said Greenberg, who wrote FIRE’s letters to Emory Law. “At Emory Law, future lawyers are apparently taught that it’s fine to use government power to punish groups they dislike — the freedom of expression be damned.”
Emory’s own Respect for Open Expression Policy actually affirms, “an environment where the open expression of ideas and open, vigorous debate and speech are valued, promoted, and encouraged.”
But without “approval,” the new organization cannot reserve space to meet, request funds, or function as a viable campus group.
“Rejecting every student group that is potentially offensive will yield a sterile and silent student body,” Greenberg said. “We call on Emory Law to promptly recognize the Emory Free Speech Forum.”
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