Letter to a Conservative Censor

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Posted: Oct 07, 2015 12:01 AM
Letter to a Conservative Censor

Dear (name withheld):

Thank you for writing to me with your concerns over the status of PRIDE at (name withheld) college. Given your status as a newly appointed member of the Board of Trustees and self-described “occasional reader” of my column I am frankly stunned by the content of your letter. Nonetheless, I intend to respond at some length. My reply will not be what you had anticipated.

As you are probably aware, PRIDE stands for People Recognizing Individual Differences Exist. It is one of many student organizations around the country that holds itself out as an organization seeking to promote tolerance toward the LGBT community. We probably both agree that these organizations usually fail to promote tolerance. That is because such groups are generally made up of ideologically rigid leftists with a proclivity toward censorship of dissenting viewpoints.

My profound distaste for censorship is one of the reasons I am so disappointed that you have written seeking my assistance in having the group defunded and derecognized. What you have asked me to help you do is not just immoral. It is also illegal. Let me explain.

You note in your correspondence that PRIDE is currently funded by what you refer to as “tax dollars.” These are actually mandatory student activity fees paid by students attending the college. Because the school is publicly funded that means it must adhere to a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, known as Wisconsin v. Southworth. In that case, the attorney arguing the position of the appellee was my friend and former attorney Jordan Lorence.

Jordan did not win the specific ruling he sought before the High Court. He had hoped the majority would declare student activity fees to be unconstitutional per se - because they compelled students to fund speech with which they disagreed. The Court rejected that argument saying such fees furthered a government interest in promoting discussion on a broad range of social and political topics.

However, Jordan did manage to have a portion of the University of Wisconsin’s student fee policy struck down. The specific portion was one that banned political groups from receiving funding derived from those mandatory student activity fees. The Supreme Court ruled that the fees had to be redistributed in a viewpoint neutral basis in order to pass constitutional muster. That means groups cannot be denied because they are “political” or “religious” (also see Rosenberger v. Rector, 1995) or because they adhere to a particular viewpoint.

Having read this brief description of the Southworth case, you should now be able to recognize the illegality of what you are seeking to do. As an official at a public college you simply cannot have a group defunded because you disagree with their mission. The students in PRIDE pay mandatory student activity fees and they deserve to be recognized as an official group so they may reclaim their fees just like anyone else at the public institution. Therefore, your decision to contact me with such a grossly improper request compels me to respond in the following manner:

I will be running a copy of this letter in my weekly column with your name and your institution’s name redacted. The reason for this first course of action is to warn other potential censors to avoid contacting me in the future. This is the second time such a thing has happened to me in the last decade and, quite frankly, that is two times too many.

I will be contacting PRIDE to offer to help them secure competent legal counsel. Unless I hear back from you immediately with some assurance that you intend to abandon your interest in interfering with the First Amendment activities of PRIDE I will be contacting them via email. If you persist, I sincerely hope they sue you and that this letter is used to help strip you of qualified immunity.

I will be publishing your name and contact information if action is taken against PRIDE. If there is any direct action taken against PRIDE I will republish this letter with one slight modification: It will include your name and personal email address. I really don’t care whether you consider this to be an invasion of privacy. Public officials have no right to conspire to violate the rights of private citizens under conditions of anonymity and secrecy. Furthermore, when you attempt to build political coalitions you always assume the risk that people will reject your political goals and join the opposition.

Before I sign off, let me briefly address why you I believe you are so confused. In the past, I have railed against groups such as PRIDE because they have tried to lay claim to rights they do not have in order to violate the actual rights of others. For example, the PRIDE group here on my campus actually threatened to prosecute another student group for inviting them to a debate on the abortion issue. By claiming a) the right to be unoffended, and b) that invitations from groups with opposing viewpoints were offensive, they sought to abridge the free speech rights of others. Surely, you must understand that our efforts to stop PRIDE from claiming rights they don’t have does not translate into depriving them of rights they do have.

The course of action you have chosen is also dangerous to conservatives. We were once considered to be the principal opponents of free speech on college campuses. However, in the last twenty years, it has become evident that most censorship now comes from the campus left. An awareness of that shift has been beneficial to our credibility as a movement and it has been damaging to liberalism.

In short, your attack on the rights of the PRIDE organization is more than just unprincipled. It is also very bad politics.