Truman State University Rejects Animal Rights Club

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education letter to the university:

In addition to rejecting [various other] organizations, Truman State has a long history of denying recognition to student organizations promoting vegetarianism or veganism.

In March of 2017, students sought to establish a Vegetarian Club at Truman State. In evaluating its self-described purpose (to, among other things, "inform others on the molestation of other animals so more people support equality for those animals"), the university raised "concerns" that the mission was "very very very extreme." The committee member evaluating the group wrote:

"The organization doesn't apply to everyone, I'm not nor will I probably ever be a vegetarian …. It is a diet/lifestyle choice that people make for their own independent reasons. There have also been studies coming out the last few years that point to being vegetarian/vegan might end up being worse for some people due to the lack of nutrients they get while on these diets/lifestyles. So there could be the potential risk of miseducating people interested in joining the club/lifestyle.

One evaluation form, presumably authored by a different member of the committee, noted that the group's plan to recruit members used the word "convert," which the committee member characterized as "[e]vangelizing."

On March 7, 2017, the Vegetarian Club was informed that it had been rejected due to "risk management," citing the "nature" of the organization. An administrator explained to the group that the university "see[s] serious risk in giving students information on what to eat to be vegetarian and where to get it in the Kirksville community," and "dietary suggestions should be left to professionals due to the potential for health complications." In internal records, however, the reasons for the rejection also listed the group's "purpose" in addition to the "risk management" issues….

On October 16, 2019, Naomi Mathew, a sophomore at Truman State, proposed to establish the "Animal Alliance" club. The Animal Alliance met the objective criteria for establishing a group, including providing an application form, identifying an advisor, and identifying more than ten interested students.

On November 5, Mathew responded to an email from "the team" posing a serious of questions about the group's application. Mathew was also asked about her plan to "address" the "emotional risk of this subject matter," how the Animal Alliance planned "to address the emotional risk of having a police presence at events and how that could potentially escalate a situation." Mathew explained that calling the police was "not the preferred response" and that she hoped "nothing would escalate to that level." Mathew was also questioned about what "training" the group's members would "undergo to address potentially hostile students." Notes written by hand (presumably that of a committee member) on a copy of the group's responses to the questions highlight the "Risk Org Assumes w/ Affiliation w/ PETA" without elaboration.

On November 13, 2019, Mathew and Astha Thapa, the would-be president of the organization, attended the hearing on the Animal Alliance application. Handwritten notes on the application suggest that at least one committee member was (1) concerned about the group's plan to "mobilize" in support of animal advocacy, (2) wanted "proof" that the students were "incredibly passionate" about being "the voice for the animals," and (3) believed that students could "meetup with like-minded individuals" without being a club. Further, an audio recording taken at the hearing reflects that at least one committee member was concerned about the "risk brought about by [Animal Alliance's] affiliation with PETA." …

Read the whole thing; I've found FIRE's past factual summaries quite trustworthy.

I also think the exclusion is likely unconstitutional, for the reasons the FIRE letter raises. It's possible that the university's process for recognizing student organizations is so selective and subjective (with half the applicants being rejected for various reasons) that the university isn't really setting up a limited public forum any more, and is instead engaged in some sort of quality-judgment-based benefits program like the one involved in NEA v. Finley. But on balance, I think FIRE likely has the better argument here. And even setting aside whether Truman State's actions are unconstitutional, I think they reflect badly on it as a university.

NEXT: My new essay in the Atlantic on the Articles of Impeachment

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  1. “emotional risk”

    Hey, that stuff about emotional risk was only meant to be used against fascist right-wing groups!

    1. What was once reasonable concern about viscious and repeated harraasment on campuses (and business) has morphed into a government-enforced silencing driven by upset, which in turn breeds upset and theatrics to make it seem super serious, yo!

      They need legal clarification that ideas cannot be silenced this way, end of story.

      I have no idea how to define this separate from actual harrassment (like porn, you know it when you see it), but the current state is BS.

  2. How much does it matter if a student club has ties to an organization like Earth First! which brags about driving nails into trees to damage chain saws and possibly loggers? I haven’t paid much attention to these animal rights groups, but have wondered how Greenpeace, for instance, can get away with trespassing on whaling ships and oil rigs. Doesn’t supporting illegal actions matter for purposes of tax-free status?

    1. If a student group expressly advocated breaking laws, destroying property, and/or endangering public safety, it’s possible that the First Amendment issue would be different. (The cases are somewhat of a mess on that issue.)

      But these groups are garden variety animal rights/vegetarian groups. Nothing close to eco-terrorism here. And it seems to me that it’s pretty obvious that the First Amendment prohibits a public university from discriminating against animal rights or vegetarianism when recognizing student clubs.

      1. What I’m asking is something in between. The affiliation here is with PETA, who, while a bunch of liars and frauds (see the animal shelter they ran), has not done much illegal other than throwing fake blood on people wearing fur coats.

        What if a club was affiliated with Greenpeace or Earth First!

        And how does Greenpeace get tax-exempt status when they advocate illegal acts, such as trespassing oil rigs and whalers, which is arguably piracy?

        1. And how does Greenpeace get tax-exempt status when they advocate illegal acts, such as trespassing oil rigs and whalers, which is arguably piracy?

          Same way social conservatives who support abortion-clinic-bombers do. By saying “well, I don’t support their methods, obviously, but their message is good!”

          1. Greenpeace members actually do board ships and oil rigs, they don’t just say they support people who do.

            Please pay attention. It’s a very specific question.

            1. I am paying attention. You just don’t like the answer. No True Scotsman isn’t just a logical fallacy, it’s a political tactic.

              1. You haven’t answered my question. You made up a question about abortion opponents and answered that. Your answer reflects that deliberate difference (“well, I don’t support their methods, obviously, but their message is good!”) because Greenpeace does in fact stand by its illegal acts.

        2. Could you be more specific about what you mean by “affiliated” and “advocate illegal acts, such as trespassing oil rigs and whalers”? Greenpeace (like any other tax-exempt entity) can’t outright advocate illegal conduct but is not responsible for illegal conduct of people who associate with Greenpeace.

          1. This is not hard. See the original quote:

            Notes written by hand (presumably that of a committee member) on a copy of the group’s responses to the questions highlight the “Risk Org Assumes w/ Affiliation w/ PETA” without elaboration.

            What if it were Earth First! or Greenpeace instead of PETA?

            I’m asking a simple question.

            1. Well I’m not sure what the distinction is because you won’t point me to the expressly illegal conduct advocacy you’ve posited by Greenpeace or Earth First!

              I have a simple question. If you think the constitutional issues hinge on a distinction between Greenpeace and PETA, just tell me what that distinction is.

              1. Anyone who has pain any attention knows about Greenpeace, Rainbow Warrior, and all the whaling operations they’ve interfered with. They have also trespassed on numerous oil rigs to hang banners, and it doesn’t take a legal genius to think of trespass as illegal. Normal rules of the sea, or navigation or whatever they’re called, do not allow ships to deliberately get in each others’ way. If you are unaware of any of Greenpeace’s activity in that regard, then do your own research.

          2. And further, Greenpeace does in fact trespass and board oil rigs and whaling ships, and deliberately interfere with whaling ships in violation of normal rules of the sea. You’d have to be pretty damned naive to believe otherwise; what happened, did all those people steal Greenpeace banners and steal their ship just to make them look bad? It won’t wash.

            1. “normal rules of the sea”?

              1. Keep dodging. You’re not very good at it. You need more practice.

                1. You’re asking an odd hypthetical to try and shoehorn in some partisan BS. Folks aren’t dodging; they’re telling you you’re being silly.

    2. Assuming for the moment that Greenpeace were engaged in outright and flagrantly illegal activity, even that would not (or at least, should not) be enough to convict a student club merely by association. Neither campus Republicans nor campus Democrats should be held accountable for the crimes of their “parent” organization.

      Free speech demands letting other people say uncomfortable and even outrageous things. That explicitly includes saying that you support and approve of other people who are violating societal norms and even violating what you perceive to be unjust laws.

      Extending that argument, no, even Greenpeace should not lose their tax-exempt status merely for supporting illegal activities. Tax-exemptions are based on defined criteria. Scrupulously obeying every law is not one of those criteria.

      Nor should it be if we believe in free speech and the right to protest what we believe are unjust laws. I think Greenpeace are a bunch of thugs bordering on eco-terrorists. I think many of their members should be prosecuted for specific illegal acts. Nevertheless, I defend the organization’s right to speak out on their issues and their right to advocate for civil disobedience as a strategy. Threatening their tax-exempt status would be inappropriate chilling of their free speech rights – a wrong far worse than what they individually do.

      1. Greenpeace does not merely support illegal activities. The organization as an organization commits illegal activities. Go google for them if you don’t believe me, unless you think interfering with whaling ships right of way is not illegal, or shooting water cannons at whaling ship crews, or trespassing on oil rigs to hang Greenpeace banners, or any other of their official activities. They don’t just give speeches and write articles supporting these illegal activities, they engage in them directly.

        It’s the difference between supporting Trump and supporting direct corrupt bribery.

        1. I confess to know very little about what Greenpeace does and doesn’t do.

          But you need to be careful not to elide two different situations:

          1. The student group itself advocates illegal, harmful conduct.

          2. A group that the student group claims affiliation with advocates illegal, harmful conduct.

          I think that (2) is a very easy case- the students have a First Amendment right to express support or affiliation with any group. (1) is a harder case.

        2. Greenpeace does not and cannot do those things because of their decentralized legal structure. They do not, for example, have the kind of hierarchical structure that would allow a Board of Directors to issue directives or a CEO with a management structure to direct hired staff to board ships. They have a lot of volunteer members, some who are law-abiding and some whose behavior is well over the edge. Greenpeace, the organization, supports their law-breaking members but is not itself committing the illegal act. At least, not until someone can make a case meeting some collective statue like RICO.

          As far as I know, a fair number of Greenpeace members have been convicted of illegal acts but the organization itself has not. I know it seems like a narrow distinction but it’s an important one.

  3. I’d keep an eye on whether this government institution censors comments on social media. Federal courts have not looked kindly on that practice.

  4. Well, at least they are clear about the legal standard at hand. An organization can be extreme, or very extreme, or even very, very extreme, and pass muster. But once you hit that very, very, very extreme category you are out!

    Was it a committee of faculty that wrote the thing?

  5. 1) Everyone, even terrorists, have the right to assemble. If I ran the university, I would turn a blind eye to what these affinity groups say or do. At least, regarding the 1st amendment.

    2) The conflict comes when we also mandate that the universities provide a welcoming and safe environment for all students.

    Clearly, (1) and (2) can be contradictory. Which has priority? I say (1), others say (2), heated arguments ensue.

    IMO we can never protect people from speech-based discomfort or perceived lack of safety. It is foolish to try.

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