When Naomi Mathew tried to start an animal rights club at Missouri’s Truman State University, she expected to speak with fellow students about an issue that matters deeply to her. But after a committee of students and administrators rejected her club due to concerns about the “emotional risk” of “hostile” confrontations and the “reputational risk” of associating with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), it’s Mathew’s First Amendment rights that are endangered.
Today, with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), she is fighting back.
“It seems like the university has something against us,” Mathew said. “Truman State needs to stop making excuses and recognize our group. We understand that many people don’t like the idea of animal rights, but we still deserve the same platform as the other groups on campus.”
Students forming the Animal Alliance had done everything necessary: Mathew submitted an application form, selected an adviser, and identified more than 10 interested students. But following a hearing and closed-door deliberations, administrators denied their application on November 21st, citing “the emotional risk” of potentially hostile student reactions, and the possibility that police responding to such situations could be emotionally upsetting to other students. Administrators also expressed concern about the “reputational risk” of associating with PETA.
Groups without official recognition can be denied a wide range of resources, including funding, room reservations, and the ability to publicize events on campus.
Animal Alliance is the third prospective student group promoting veganism or vegetarianism to be denied recognition in as many years. The university rejected a proposed Vegetarian Club in 2017, after a committee member objected to part of its mission statement as “very very very extreme” and said they would not go vegetarian themselves.
Yesterday, FIRE wrote to Truman State President Susan Thomas, asking her to recognize Animal Alliance and stop violating students’ First Amendment rights.
“Truman State can’t reject student groups just because it doesn’t like what they might say, or what others may say in response,” said Lindsie Rank, the author of FIRE’s letter. “The law is clear: Naomi Mathew and her fellow students are free to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without a university committee making subjective decisions behind closed doors about what students can and can’t handle.”
Truman State is no stranger to denying club recognition to a wide array of prospective organizations. Since 2015, administrators have denied at least 43 prospective groups, including those advocating for first-generation college students, transgender students, and children with cancer. Other groups to face Truman’s axe include clubs promoting religious causes, the elimination of the global slave trade, and consent in sexual relationships.
“Any system that results in students being asked what ‘emotional risk’ might come from associating with like-minded individuals and then being told that risk is too great is cruel and raises serious questions about the institution’s fair-weather friendship with the First Amendment,” said Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Students’ rights can’t be subordinated to what administrators feel is in their best emotional interest.”
Universities may use objective criteria to grant or deny student groups’ bids for official recognition. But Truman State’s subjective process violates students’ First Amendment rights and results in a double standard, with some controversial groups approved and others ousted. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation and use all the resources at its disposal to ensure a just outcome.
Truman State’s namesake said: “Real Americanism means that we will protect freedom of speech — we will defend the right of people to say what they think, regardless of how much we may disagree with them.”
Featured image: Truman State University student Naomi Mathew. Image credit Rivera Eye Photography for FIRE.