The Pennsylvania State University has reportedly yet to answer a Philadelphia-based free-speech nonprofit’s request that the school confirms adherence to freedom of association.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) asked Penn State to do so after a brief disagreement this spring between administrators and the College Independents. This student group hosts political discussions featuring “a wide variety of viewpoints.” 

According to FIRE, the organization sought to expel a member for “disruptive behavior at group events and meetings, as well as in an organization group chat where the member sent repeated, unsolicited messages over the course of several months.” Kristen Carr, associate director of Student Organizations, reacted by telling the group in an email that they “cannot hold a student accountable to behaviors that are not connected to the organization.”

In a subsequent email to the College Independents, Carr backed off her initial message and explained that the group was following proper protocol in removing its participant. FIRE, which has overseen many free-speech cases on behalf of students since its founding in 1999, sent a letter on May 17 lauding Penn State’s ultimate decision. FIRE nonetheless wanted assurance from the school, a taxpayer-funded institution, that it will let student groups handle member expulsion and discipline issues going forward.

“…The First Amendment binds Penn State to uphold student rights to an array of expressive freedoms,” FIRE campus rights advocacy program officer Graham Piro wrote to Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi. “Among these is the freedom of association, which has for centuries lied at the heart of the American system of government and individual rights. This core freedom extends to students enrolled in public universities….” 

The nonprofit requested a response from Bendapudi’s office before the close of business on Wednesday, May 31. On Thursday afternoon, Piro told The Pennsylvania Daily Star he had not seen any answer from the university. The school also did not return an email from The Daily Star seeking comment.

“…While the administrator did appear to reverse [her] decision, what we’re looking for from Penn State is a commitment that, in the future, the university will ensure that student organizations can make their own associational decisions concerning the removal or discipline of their members as is their First Amendment right,” Piro said. “We haven’t received a response yet. We are hopeful that we will receive a response either to this letter or to a potential follow-up.” 

FIRE’s message explained that associational rights are elemental to free speech, citing the 2006 Supreme Court decision Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. Therein, Chief Justice John Roberts stated a citizen’s speech is “often exercised most effectively by combining one’s voice with the voices of others.”

Piro noted that, in April, Bendapudi made what FIRE considered encouraging remarks regarding recent controversial guest speakers, decisively supporting maximal free speech, calling it “a right that we’re very fortunate to enjoy in this country.” Her comments, however, came six months after Penn State shut down an event where Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and comedian Alex Stein were scheduled to address students. Two months before Bendapudi recorded her video affirming a commitment to open expression, FIRE described her school as one of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.” 

Piro said FIRE intends to “stay tuned” to see if the university fulfills its president’s promise regarding First Amendment obligations. 

“We commend President Bendapudi for that statement about free expression on campus,” he said, “and this is a situation where we’d like to hear back from the university confirming that they will uphold the rights of student organizations to make their own personnel decisions… through their right of freedom of association.”

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Penn State Campus” by Penn State