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Recognizing Student Groups

One way in which colleges and universities have traditionally imposed free speech restrictions on students is by determining which student groups they will recognize. Such recognition traditionally allows these groups to share in mandatory fees and receive space for offices and to hold meetings on college campuses. Generally speaking, colleges are held to have made available a “limited public forum” to such groups, and as such are limited in the restrictions they can impose.

In the 1973 case of Healy v. James, the Supreme Court established that a college or university could not refuse to recognize an organization simply because university officials had an unproven fear of school disruption. Healy applied the material and substantial disruption test of Tinker to the college environment and found that unless the school had a compelling reason to believe that a group, in this case, Students for a Democratic Society, would seriously interfere with learning on the campus environment, it could not deny recognition.

In 1981, the Court went further in the case of Widmar v. Vincent. Involving the decision by the University of Missouri to refuse to recognize and grant access to university property to a religious group, the Court ruled that the University’s decision to do so, while allowing access to several secular based groups, violated the First Amendment. The Court’s decision in Widmar effectively meant that any decision by a college to deny recognition to a particular group was going to be analyzed with strict scrutiny and most likely struck down.

While none of these cases has reached the Supreme Court, one of the most litigated issues of the past thirty years involving recognition of student groups has involved recognition of homosexual groups. Generally speaking, nearly all attempts by colleges to refuse to recognize gay groups have been held to violate these groups First Amendment rights.

Inside Recognizing Student Groups