This story is being spun as a left-vs-right one, but it’s really just a reflection of the habitual, unquestioned regulation of student speech and organizing that happens on most American college campuses every single day.
Christina Beattie, a student at Palm Beach State College, is trying to launch a local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative political group. As part of that project, she set up a table at a campus club fair, but her club hadn’t yet registered and the university made her stop.
The university says that Beattie was told to leave the fair because her group wasn’t formally chartered. Beattie says it was because of her politics. She also says that she’d asked in advance whether she could participate in the event, and that the same administrator who threw her out gave her the go-ahead by phone. But even if we take the university’s story at face value, their defense isn’t much of a defense.
College spokesperson Grace Truman told the local paper that “you can’t just come in, set up a table and say you’re forming a club,” and that “the college needs to be very clear who the clubs are.” It’s not clear, though, why that should be. There’s no indication that Beattie’s table was interfering with others’ use of the space, or that her actions were disruptive in any way. Why not just let someone “come in, set up a table, and say you’re forming a club”?
The reason, of course, is that it’s simpler for the university. If you limit tabling to registered clubs, the fair will be easier to manage. In exactly the same way, restrictions on demonstrating, chalking, and other extra-curricular activities help keep the campus running smoothly. But a campus, like any community, is a boisterous place, and whether it’s “running smoothly” isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the only measure of its health and vitality.
Conservative commentators assume (and assume and assume and assume) that Beattie would have been treated differently if she’d been a liberal, and it’s possible that they’re right. (YAF contends that other, apolitical, unregistered groups were able to participate in the fair, without saying whether those groups’ participation was brought to administrators’ attention.)
As any campus activist can tell you, though, liberal and left-wing students’ speech is frequently restricted at American colleges and universities. And even if Beattie was singled out because of her politics, that discrimination was only possible because limitations on student speech and assembly on campus exist.
There’s no legitimate reason why a college “needs to be very clear” which student groups exist on campus. There’s no legitimate reason why students shouldn’t be able to just set up a table at a meet-and-greet, so long as there’s enough room for them. To give priority to those student groups (formal or informal) who have signed up in advance, or to those who have been active on campus for a while, makes sense.
But to arbitrarily distinguish between “registered” and “unregistered” student groups serves neither the needs of the student community nor the demands of the First Amendment.
This piece was also published at Huffington Post.