After a suit against Queens College was filed, a group of pro-life students became an official club, raising the question of freedom of speech and conservatism on college campuses for students across CUNY.
The group was denied club status in 2016 and filing in January, Students for Life was recognized as a club on Jan. 29 allowing Norvilia Etienne, Queens College student and plaintiff in the case against the college, to get to work on her club’s mission of spreading pro-life materials and resources. For her, it’s been a struggle to have her voice heard.
“We were very optimistic about this club and all the good we could do for pregnant and parenting students on our campus. We wanted to spread the message that all men were created equal, and that human life was sacred from conception to natural death and therefore should be protected…that women in crisis pregnancies should be helped with tangible resources and given hope,” said Etienne. “This is what we wanted and that committee robbed us of that opportunity. So naturally we were devastated and felt helpless.”
Etienne decided to start Students for Life in early August of 2016 with the goal to provide a place for students to discuss the controversial topic without the confines of race or religion and to give pregnant students the resources. In the first couple weeks of classes Etienne says she was eager to get the ball rolling on forming her club.
“We wanted a club dedicated to the pro-life cause that people of any race or religious affiliation could join, Queens College didn’t have such club yet so I moved forward with the process of applying,” said Etienne.
In November of 2016 Etienne said she filed the necessary paperwork with 10 signatures, five more than necessary, and went to interview with student affairs to gain approval for her club to organize the following year. She says her proposal was met with silence, even after contacting the two committee members of student affairs and the students government president. It wasn’t until days later when she contacted Judy Krinitz, associate director of Student Development & Leadership, that she learned that her club was denied to join the list of over 70 other clubs including religious and political groups.
“I believe we were denied because the people on the board were biased on the issue of abortion,” said Etienne. “I know that abortion is a really touchy subject and perhaps they were trying to shelter the campus from our views but that isn’t their job. Their jobs are to oversee the process of a student club being formed not to be a road block or censuring machine to certain ideas on campus. What they did was wrong, and I hope this opens up the gate for queens college to be a college that welcomes free speech on campus.”
The suit argues that plaintiffs shouldn’t have to pay the $303.85 in student fees, half of which funds campus clubs and organizations until Students of Life receives the same benefits of an approved club – an advisor, meeting space and funding. In addition, the suit argues that the student committee approval system is unconstitutional and allows for discrimination.
Queens College Office of Student Affairs confirmed that the club was approved in an email.
“Queens College welcomes the participation of all students in diverse campus activities. There are over 80 active student clubs and organizations. This decision is consistent with the College’s commitment to an open and inclusive environment,” said Queens College in a statement. They declined to make further comment.
Etienne is “elated” to get to work alongside the 14 other members. She says the club plans on hosting speakers, volunteering at the Pregnancy Resource Center in Queens, putting up fliers and tabling around campus.
Feelings about the club’s presence on a CUNY campus and their struggle for what they call freedom of speech has received mixed responses revealing not only the complexity of the topic but navigating freedom of speech and discussion of conservative opinions on college campuses.
“I think it’s important to have free speech on campus but it’s also important to realize that impact is more important than intent when it comes to matters like these,” said Paige Senk, treasurer of the Women’s History Month Committee and Program Assistant at the Women’s Center. “If that group were to hand out propagandist literature that leads to women being unprepared and unsafe about their reproductive health than that’s a public health issue and I think the college has every right to make the decision not to fund that.”
President of the Newman Catholic Club, Liz Joseph, explained that the club’s views on abortion are circumstantial, but they agree that the club deserves to organize. “We also believe they have a right to organize considering that free speech is for all,” said Joseph. “Which brings up the point that conservatives are in the minority, which is true. The majority of college students are liberal, but that is not an exclusive group.”
Etienne agreed that campuses aren’t open to conservative voices. “If you speak up you’re often made fun of and called all sorts of names, so people often remain silent because it costs to be an outspoken conservative on campus.” She says this stifling of conservative opinions is harmful to everyone. “Universities are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas and any policy that allows ideas to be hushed is violating the first amendment.”
Despite differing opinions from students on the topic and on the varied opinions on conservative voices on campus, according to administration, Brooklyn College is doing its best to be this marketplace of opinion.
Dean Jackson explained that all clubs are welcome on campus, but the decision is ultimately made by “the various student governments” and monitored by Student Affairs, “any club that completes the club recognition process has the right to be recognized at Brooklyn College.”
It is still to be determined in court if the current club approval process is constitutional.