Victory for Conscience and Legal Equality at Washington University, Saint Louis
October 15, 2002
Saint Louis, MO—In a dramatic and complete reversal, the Student Bar Association (SBA) at Washington University School of Law voted 27-6, with 4 abstentions, to recognize Law Students Pro-Life. This vote overturned two earlier decisions that denied recognition to Law Students Pro-Life, the critical first vote having been 27-10-1 against the group. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) advised Law Students Pro-Life throughout the ordeal and organized a widespread campaign to restore the students to their rights. "We are relieved and gratified that pro-life students at Washington University now enjoy the same rights as all other students," said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. "The University and the Law School," he added, "were unable to defend in public what they practiced in private. I wish that they had acted, at the beginning, from moral principle rather than from expedience."
Prior to last night’s meeting, the SBA had twice denied Law Students Pro-Life recognition as an official campus organization, thus making the group ineligible for funding, student office space, a campus mail address, and listing in the admissions brochure. In a September 9, 2002 letter of rejection to Law Students Pro-Life, the SBA termed "the catching issue" what they labeled "the narrowness of your group’s interests and goals." The SBA "felt that the organization was not touching on all possible Pro Life issues" because it did not have an "anti-death penalty" position in its constitution. The second rejection was delivered to Law Students Pro-Life on September 23 without comment. Shortly after that second decision, Law Students Pro-Life was informed that the administration would not overrule the SBA or take any corrective action.
FIRE wrote to the chancellor of Washington University and to the dean of the Law School on September 30, urging them to do the right thing and spare themselves the embarrassment of fighting publicly against freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. FIRE pointed out that the SBA had rightly recognized other organizations whose missions some might find "narrow," demonstrating an abusive double standard. FIRE also reminded Washington University of its own published statement that it was "committed to the principles of freedom of religion and speech."
When the University neither replied to FIRE nor acted on behalf of freedom and dignity, FIRE began a campaign of public exposure. FIRE also issued an open letter with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri to the SBA, asking them to "reaffirm their commitment to tolerance, openness, and pluralism." Law School Dean Joel Seligman, receiving numerous calls from national media and hundreds of emails from concerned individuals, instructed the SBA to hold an extraordinary session to discuss the recognition of Law Students Pro-Life. A majority of the SBA members who spoke at this meeting voiced objections to the recognition of Law Students Pro-Life. The meeting was adjourned and a follow-up meeting set for Monday, October 14, 2002.
FIRE immediately began circulating a national petition on behalf of Washington University Law Students Pro-Life. In just 48 hours, more than 200 professors, law students, undergraduates, and private citizens from around the country signed the petition, which called on the SBA and the administration to preserve "freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech" by recognizing Law Students Pro-Life. "A great university," the petition urged, "does not impose a dreary uniformity of beliefs."
"FIRE’s advocacy made all the difference," said Jordan Siverd, chairman of Law Students Pro-Life. "FIRE helped the SBA see what the problem was. The ACLU student chapter and the ACLU-Eastern Missouri also were very helpful in securing equal access to the school’s facilities and resources. Their participation shows FIRE’s ability to build coalitions on behalf of liberty. FIRE framed the issue for the students in such a way that they could really understand that their decision was a denial of equal access, contrary to the core principles of any great university."
"This should serve as a reminder to all administrators who are concerned with preserving intellectual diversity at their institution," said Kors. "If they present their campuses as centers of individual rights and legal equality, they must not dictate the political and moral views of their students and student organizations. The manner of this victory for liberty and legal equality also reveals the profound truth of what Justice Louis Brandeis observed so well: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’"
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Washington University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Mark Stephen Wrighton, Chancellor: 314-935-5100; email@example.com
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Joel Seligman, Dean of the School of Law: 314-935-6420; email@example.com
David Hacker, Law Students Pro-Life: firstname.lastname@example.org