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Student Governments Fast Becoming a Focal Point of the Campus Free Expression Crisis

Higher education researchers have found six experiences that make for success after graduation. High on the list: being active in extracurricular activities like student government associations. SGAs are bodies that work out the details of campus life through the student senate, the student judiciary, and oversight of student clubs.

Increasingly, SGAs have weighed in on free expression matters. Student leadership on free expression can contribute to the civic mission of higher education—building the capacity for citizens to work with those who come from different political persuasions.

An example of an SGA making a positive impact on free expression include a student senate resolution at the University of Richmond that led to the university’s statement on free expression. In addition, student governments at Colgate University and Gettysburg College endorsed free expression philosophies, and this year students at the University of Nebraska passed a system-wide bill supporting freedom of the press.

But other SGAs are restricting free-flowing discourse and viewpoint diversity. Here, we explore four types of free expression controversies that have confronted SGAs in the past three years, how they affect campuses, and several explanations for this phenomenon.

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Condemnation and Regulation of Student Speech

Members of SGAs have passed resolutions or issued statements that condemn student speech or seek to regulate future expression.

  • In May 2021, a law school SGA tried to condition funding for student groups on whether the group promoted critical race theory or related concepts in its events. The move was repealed after pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which wrote that the requirement “puts student clubs in a bind” by forcing them to put on events that are unrelated or contrary to their mission.
  • In July 2020, an SGA officially condemned a student as “ignorant” and “hateful” for writing on his personal blog that systemic racism did not exist in the United States. Heads of the College Democrats and College Republicans rebuked the resolution as student government overreach.
  • In November 2020, SGA officials organized a protest against College Republicans and administrators after a private college’s Instagram page quoted the club president in a series about first-time voters: “there’s a space where you can support a Republican candidate without getting a side eye or without being baselessly labeled as hateful… we should be able to coexist.” At the protest, the college president apologized for the Instagram post.
  • In November 2019, an SGA at a private university condemned the campus newspaper for following standard journalism practice. The newspaper had contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on a story about a local “Abolish ICE” protest.
  • In September 2019, a public university SGA president and vice president issued a statement in response to a student’s private Snapchat post of a plantation gift shop with the caption, “I wonder if they sell slaves.” A student senator faced a censure vote after he criticized leadership for condemning a “crude joke.”

Restriction of Freedoms of Association and Religion

Student governments often credential new student organizations, a process known as “recognition.” Recognition provides clubs with funding, access to campus-wide email, a slot on the community calendar, and opportunities to spread their message through tabling and chalking.

Clubs are an opportunity for students to enjoy associational and religious freedoms, represent a range of perspectives on campus, and provide diverse, student-led safe spaces for members of the campus community. But SGAs sometimes control recognition of groups in ways that infringe on student freedoms. The following examples, divided into categories, represent this trend with respect to a broad range of student groups:

Left-leaning social and political groups

  • In April 2021, student senators at a private university voiced concerns about and suggested that their SGA should withdraw funds for a Palestinian justice event with Angela Davis, which might promote “hate of religion or nationality.” The event was postponed, allegedly for paperwork errors in the application.
  • In February 2021, a medical school’s SGA asserted that it only recognized nonpolitical groups in denying recognition to a student organization advocating for single-payer healthcare. However, the SGA accepted applications from at least four groups that exist in part to promote certain political positions.
  • In February 2020, an SGA at a public university considered a resolution condemning a student group’s pro-Palestine exhibit as featuring “violent terrorists.” The resolution was voted down in committee after a contentious public comments hearing.

Conservative social and political groups

  • In May 2021, student government officials at a private college denied recognition to a chapter of Turning Point USA because of “misalignment between [the student government] mission statement and TPUSA publications and activities.” Because the decision was “so discretionary,” the student government’s executive team was consulted. They upheld the move, which SGA representatives explained to the public in an open letter. Student leaders have also denied TPUSA recognition here, here, and here.
  • In October 2020, when a nationally established pro-life group applied to a public university SGA for membership, the student senate denied the request on grounds that the group would create “a hostile environment” on campus (see video of that meeting here). The university president overruled the SGA and allowed the group to form.
  • In April 2019, a student judiciary board ordered the leadership of a College Republicans chapter to step down, and banned them from leadership roles in all student organizations for the duration of their undergraduate careers, after the student newspaper leaked messages from the chapter’s online chat poking fun at a proposed “common language guide.” Administrators informed the board that they did not have authority to make such an order.

Religious groups

  • In September 2019, a private university’s SGA declined to recognize a chapter of a national Christian organization because the group bars sexually active LGBTQ individuals from their leadership positions.

Pro-Israel groups

  • In March 2021, student leaders denied recognition of a club with a mission to “create a space for pro-Israel, pro-peace students to organize [and] to act together on behalf of a two-state solution,” because the group lacked diverse enough perspectives.
  • In May 2019, a private college’s SGA refused to recognize a pro-Israel group. The college paper reported that it was the first group in over a decade to comply with all bylaws but fail to gain official status.

Lack of Transparency

The “most startling element” identified by a 2016 study published in the Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice “was the lack of transparency of the 73 student governments [studied] that did not report minutes, agendas, current rosters of membership, listings of legislation, or public reports of funding decisions.”

Student governments have restricted access to legislation, which is often just in the form of a Google document, once a controversy draws media attention. (See also the impeachment petition cited here, which was blocked in February 2020.)

In at least one case, student officials banned campus newspaper reporters from attending an SGA-sponsored event. And in October last year, a student senate enacted procedural hurdles to prevent the senate’s only two Palestinian students from speaking about a resolution to boycott Israel.

Impeachments and Forced Resignations

Student leaders have faced removal after voicing opinions that some found offensive. These efforts include impeachments and discipline for official SGA activity, like voting on bills, and for expression that takes place outside a student’s SGA role, like social media posts on private accounts.

Discipline for official SGA activity

  • In March 2021, the lower chamber of a public university’s student government passed a resolution of no confidence in their SGA president for acting “in a manner unbecoming of the office” after he co-authored a bill to adopt the Chicago Principles on Free Expression.
  • In December 2020, SGA leaders at a private university removed senators from their committees for voting against an effort to defund campus police.
  • In September 2019, a public university’s SGA initiated censure proceedings against a senator who referred to another student’s controversial Snapchat post of a plantation gift shop as a “crude joke,” and called the Black-students-only forum held in response to the incident a “segregated event.” In moving the censure forward, senators cited these two quotes as “discriminatory harassment” that created a “harmful environment.”

Discipline for expression outside an SGA role

  • In February 2021, a member of the student government judiciary at a private university faced impeachment over his pro-Israel views. The group bringing the case withdrew the charges two days before trial, reportedly due to media interest in the case.
  • In January 2021, a petition signed by 21 members of a private university’s student government called to impeach a senator for posts he made to the SGA’s group messenger app, where he refused to say that it was “overt racism” for a staffer to wear a “Thin Blue Line” mask.
  • In October 2020, a diversity and inclusion senator became the first impeached senator at her private university after the campus newspaper published an article about her history of pro-Trump social media activity.
  • In August 2020, an SGA vice president at a private university resigned after a months-long social media campaign to oust her over pro-Israel views. The university president wrote in a statement to the community of the “intense pressure and toxic conditions that led to [the resignation]—specifically the antisemitic attacks on her character and the online harassment she endured because of her Jewish and Zionist identities,” concluding that community members should be respectful of different backgrounds and beliefs.
  • In June 2020, student senators at a public university impeached their SGA president, a Catholic, for comments he made in a closed online chat about how Black Lives Matter and others advocated for un-Catholic positions on abortion and gender. One week later, his successor faced impeachment calls over an antisemitic remark he made on social media seven years prior. The student judiciary restored the previous president in October. The school settled a lawsuit for nearly $100,000 alleging retaliation against his religious views.

Abuse of Power and Campus Push-Back

SGAs often use a low bar when considering whether to reprimand expression. Student senates initiate impeachments or deny recognition to clubs on the basis of broad or quasi-legal phrases like “hostile environment,” “manner unbecoming of office,” “dehumanization,” or “harm.”

These terms are subjective and often not defined in SGA bylaws. SGA officials use ad hoc definitions or pull meanings from university handbooks that were intended to apply to workplace disputes with faculty or staff, not SGA matters. In one example of misapplying their duties, student senators lacked authority to bar a recognized club from campus, but attempted to do so anyway.

In addition to a potential chilling effect, SGAs risk creating more controversy than they resolve. SGAs that condemn protected expression run the risk of being accused of overreaction and biases, including antisemitism. This is especially true when the expression in question is a one-off comment or a mainstream political opinion, as is the case in many of the above controversies.

Members of the campus community, including the heads of student organizations, dissenting members of SGAs, and college presidents, have formally and informally condemned censorious SGA activity. Their reaction suggests that many on campus regard it as inappropriate for student governments to target individuals or groups for their protected expression.

As campus free speech advocates build steam, SGAs face repercussions in the form of lawsuits and outside intervention. Administrators may correct SGA overreactions by redirecting funding oversight, denouncing resolutions, or reversing denials of student groups (also here), all of which can damage legitimacy and reduce already low student involvement.

Why Some SGAs Limit Free Expression

Several factors might explain the antagonistic attitude of certain student governments towards free expression.

First, today’s matriculating students grew up with limited exposure to neighbors whose news sources, social background, and partisanship differed from their own. As a result, rising polarization among students may decrease peer-to-peer tolerance of differing political views.

Second, few students participate in student government. For example, SGA voter turnout among Big Ten schools in 2019 averaged 9.8% (one school pulled in just 2%). A 2005 survey of nearly 100 SGAs found that an average of less than 25% of eligible students participated in these elections. And a recent, major resolution to dissolve and restructure an SGA earned less than 1% of the student vote.

Low voter participation means that student senators might choose to galvanize their limited base by taking up hot-button issues, or that senators may feel free to pursue their own political agendas without fearing backlash from an engaged constituency. In recent years, SGAs have passed or considered resolutions about federal legislation, support for Palestine, reproductive justice, racism, and abolishing police.

Third, student officeholders who move to sanction their peers over disagreeable speech might have a case of “impeachment mania,” taking their cue from members of Congress who called frequently to impeach former President Donald Trump. Alternatively, student leaders could be emulating college and university presidents, some of whom opt for a political approach to addressing social issues over one that emphasizes institutional neutrality.

A Critical Moment

Student governments are fast becoming a focal point in the campus free expression crisis. As SGA elections and campus climate become more polarized, members of student government face a critical moment. Before the next controversy hits, they have an opportunity to affirm the rights of all students to contribute to conversations about advancing campus as a place of learning, social development, and inclusion.

Through hosting politically diverse events, passing free expression resolutions, and promoting campus associations, students can be leaders when it comes to fostering a campus culture of free expression. Doing so not only might preempt the next SGA controversy, but will also go a long towards preparing the next generation to be stewards of our democracy.

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