Truman State University Rejects Animal Rights Club


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.