Over the past few months, the student body has disagreed over the instatement of Case for Life (CFL), a pro-life student organization whose mission is to “build a culture of life” and to “work to protect and promote respect for all life, from conception to natural death,” as a formally recognized university club. CFL––originally Students for Life (SFL)––was recognized by CWRU’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) last spring.
Over the summer, students voted in favor of a referendum to overturn USG’s decision. One main concern was the club’s original connection to the national organization Students for Life, whose inflammatory rhetoric and open hostility was not perceived as promoting productive dialogue.
Another issue was the possibility of psychological harm caused by pro-life students holding vigils outside of local abortion clinics. During the May 9 USG General Assembly (GA), numerous students cited literature that found the mere presence of protesters outside of abortion clinics causes psychological harm to those seeking health services. They argued that SFL’s proposed activities are in direct contradiction to CWRU’s University Student Code of Conduct, which prohibits behavior that endangers the mental or physical health of other students. These students also cited concern about confidentiality for students going to women’s clinics as well as the potential for a larger negative impact on the greater Cleveland community.
Following the referendum, the club renamed itself Case for Life (CFL) and disassociated from the national organization Students for Life. This led to the unusual decision by the Division of Student Affairs to recognize the club themselves. CFL President Madison Weldon, confirmed that CFL does not receive any resources or messaging from the national organization, Students for Life.
Recognition of CFL is still a controversial topic at CWRU. Supporters of recognizing CFL have emphasized the importance of freedom of speech and expression, arguing that just because a topic may be uncomfortable, does not mean it should be suppressed.
At last week’s GA, Jonathan Adler, professor of law, and Gabrielle Lincoff, associate counsel and deputy risk management officer at CWRU’s Office of General Counsel, answered questions about the university’s free speech policy with regards to CFL.
“A core part of what CWRU does is provide space for people to challenge ideas and ask questions because that is how knowledge is created,” Adler said. He believes it is not CWRU’s job to favor or disfavor unpopular viewpoints by censoring speech before it even takes place. Rather, we are part of a broader society where people have widely divergent views. Freedom of speech, Adler argues, is most important to those with unpopular viewpoints. Adler compared CFL to groups promoting racial justice who sometimes drift into attacks on the police. Some people, such as those with law enforcement officers in their family, may be offended. However, Adler claimed, that does not give them a claim to restrict that group’s actions.
Alexander Rambasek, third-year computer science major, echoed Adler’s statement: “We cannot make a serious effort to expand the horizons of knowledge if students live under fear of retaliation for expressing unpopular ideas.” Rather, he says CWRU’s job is to create an environment where students can productively engage in dialogue with people who have different beliefs.
It is also possible that concerns about CFL are partly based on stereotypes of pro-life people. According to Weldon, a common stereotype applied to CFL has been that all pro-life people “go about their mission by verbally attacking others, and are not willing to listen to others.” Another preconception, Weldon claims, is that all pro-life people are inherently religious, which is not the case for CFL. “The main goal of CFL is to have dialogues with those whose beliefs differ so that both sides may listen and come to a better understanding of the other,” Weldon said.
The wake of this debate led to the creation of a student organization, Voices for Reproductive Health at CWRU (VRH@CWRU). Their mission is to educate the community about reproductive health and rights, and serve as a support system, resource and safe space for open-minded individuals interested in bettering their community through education and grassroots organizing.
While VRH@CWRU supports CFL’s freedom of speech, they are particularly concerned about the spread of false and/or misleading information. “We intend to do everything we can in order to make sure the full and honest truth regarding reproductive healthcare is put out there,” said Sarah Hoffman, president of VRH@CWRU. This includes hosting meetings and sending volunteers to “act as chaperones for abortion clinics” where CFL is holding vigils.
As CFL has not violated CWRU’s Code of Conduct, the university has no legal basis to not recognize the club. Attempting to restrain CFL’s freedom of expression because of possible harm the club could cause would be acting in prior restraint, meaning that the university would be suppressing free expression before any harm had actually been done. Prior restraint is generally prohibited by law. Only one case involving prior restraint (Near v. Minnesota, 1931) has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and that was regarding the distribution of classified intelligence during time of war.
With numerous lawsuits, including Pro-Life Cougars v. University of Houston, against universities for using prior restraint to censor speech, some argue CWRU is attempting to avoid a lawsuit by officially recognizing CFL.
Ultimately, it will be up to CFL to adhere to CWRU’s Code of Conduct and to promote productive dialogue. There is no shortage of eyes on the group, and failure to follow the Code of Conduct could lead to disciplinary actions through the Division of Student Affairs. Additionally, if USG recognizes CFL, they will have oversight over the club and will be able to institute penalties, revoke funding or derecognize CFL.