After a protracted standoff between Queens College in New York and a pro-life student group that had been denied official recognition at the university, Queens College accepted the group’s application for “registered” status on Friday.
The news came as thousands of anti-abortion advocates attended the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., where Vice President Mike Pence promised pro-life voters that the Trump administration “will work with the Congress to end taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion providers.”
Earlier this week, Students for Life at Queens College filed a federal lawsuit claiming college officials violated the constitution in refusing to grant them “registered” status among more than 80 officially recognized student organizations, including religious groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, Chinese Christian Fellowship, and Muslim Students Association (PDF).
The suit argues that plaintiffs shouldn’t have to pay mandatory student fees—$303.85 per semester, roughly half of which is charged as a “Student Activity Fee”—if those fees are distributed to student groups who only represent a pro-choice stance on women’s reproductive rights.
Queens College Students for Life should be granted the same benefits and privileges as other registered groups, including access to a “meeting space” and funding, the lawsuit states.
The suit is predicated on the fact that Queens College is a public university—part of the City University of New York system—and therefore cannot have policies that allow for discrimination.
“We’re happy to see that the group has been recognized, but that doesn’t change the fact that the system for approving student groups is still unconstitutional,” Casey Mattox, the attorney representing Queens College Students for Life, told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon.
“The system that’s currently in place at Queens College gives complete, unconstitutional authority to a panel of students to either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to student groups seeking official recognition, and then to provide student activity funding without any constitutional restraints,” said Mattox, who is director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian non-profit organization that aims to protect “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” according to its website.
Mattox was approached by Students for Life at Queens College after their application was rejected roughly six weeks ago. Norvilia Etienne, a plaintiff in the suit and sophomore at Queens College who filed the application on behalf of 14 other students in the group, asked why a student committee rejected them and was given no explanation, according to Mattox.
The lawsuit states that if students must pay mandatory fees, those fees should be distributed to student groups in a viewpoint-neutral fashion.
“You can’t just have a system that allows people to make decisions on subjective criteria and that is what Queens College has,” said Mattox, noting that both the Supreme Court and lower courts “have repeatedly held that this sort of referendum process is unconstitutional because it allows for the majority viewpoint to trump the minority viewpoint.”
In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast late Friday, the Queens College Office of Student Affairs confirmed that they had reviewed and approved the Queens College Students for Life’s application to be officially recognized as a student group.
“As with all student organizations, there are certain steps that must be taken to maintain active status,” the statement said. “Queens College welcomes the participation of all students in diverse campus activities… Today’s decision is consistent with the College’s commitment to an open and inclusive environment.”
Hours beforehand, the university had declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond stating that officials had “initiated a review of reports of a complaint by some students” that their application was rejected, and were “reviewing the decision-making process, consistent with University policies.”
Japneed Singh, a senior at Queens College and president of the student body, explained earlier in the day the process of reviewing student club applications for official recognition. Do the club’s goals apply to a relatively wide range of Queens College students? When the person who starts the club graduates, will there be someone within the group to take up leadership? Does a similar club already exist on campus?
“We want clubs to be able to make the most of their budget. So if a small group of students wants to start a Hindu Student Association, for example, we might suggest that they work with the South Asian Student Association—as opposed to getting chartered and having a smaller budget,” said Singh, who is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Singh explained that most clubs seeking recognition are asked to list potential students who are already interested in the club.
While some applications were signed by 50-100 students who wished to join their clubs, “we didn’t really see that from Students for Life,” said Singh, who also confirmed that clubs are not allotted a budget until a year after they have been accepted and that older clubs have priority to the 30-40 meeting spaces on campus.
“Newer clubs sometimes don’t get a space until a year or two after they’ve been chartered, and their budget is smaller than other clubs who have larger memberships,” he said.
Singh also claimed that Students for Life did not contact him, the vice president of student affairs, the president of the college, or the chairperson of Queens College’s Campus Affairs Committee—who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit—about being rejected: “All of those steps were skipped and they went straight to filing a lawsuit, which surprised and shocked us all because we have protocols set up in case we overlook something.”
Asked how they felt about Students for Life being officially recognized at the university, the Queens College Student Women's Center said in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast: "As a publicly funded institution, we understand the legal rights of the group to exist, however we will not tolerate hateful language towards women and those who exercise their right to choose as it violates autonomy."
Students for Life will continue to litigate their case because Queens College does not yet have a constitutionally sound policy for overseeing student clubs, according to Mattox.
“They can take away [Queens College Students for Life’s] recognition at any point in the same way that they granted it, which is to say without any objective reason,” he said, adding that it’s also unconstitutional for new student groups to receive less funding than more established groups.
“You can’t have a policy that discriminates against new ideas,” Mattox said.
The lawsuit dropped two days after a newly-inaugurated President Trump signed an executive order reviving the so-called Global Gag Rule, which denies U.S. aid money to public health organizations that provide their patients abortion services or even abortion referrals.
Early news reports described Trump’s executive order as something Republican administrations have reinstated ever since Ronald Reagan first issued it in 1984 as the so-called Mexico City policy. But reporters hadn’t yet seen the fine print: Trump’s version of the policy applies to all foreign public health organizations, and will affect up to $9.5 billion in U.S. global aid. By comparison, previous versions only affected $600 million in family-planning funding.