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Shifting rationale behind crackdown on pro-choice protest at Loyola University New Orleans raises concerns

University stonewalls after student newspaper report reveals changing justifications for administration’s decision to restrict student promoting pro-choice march.
Main entrance to Loyola University in New Orleans

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Incidents involving free expression on religious campuses are worth scrutinizing — even when religious schools caveat their free expression promises with language about student expression remaining in line with a school’s mission. An incident involving a crackdown on a pro-choice protest at Loyola University New Orleans, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, raised FIRE’s hackles given the university’s fairly strong promises of free expression and administrators’ changing story.

Loyola’s student newspaper, The Maroon, reported on a situation in which student Elena Voisin was handing out flyers on campus to promote a pro-choice march organized by the Louisiana Abortion Rights Action Committee. Ken Weber, Loyola’s associate director of student life, ordered Voisin to stop handing out the flyers because they conflict with the university’s Jesuit values.

Voisin complied, but continued to verbally promote the march, at which point two police officers ordered Voisin to stop. According to a second administrator quoted by the paper, the police were called in response to Voisin being loud and causing a disturbance. But afterward, a third administrator told The Maroon the flyers could not be distributed because they violated the school’s solicitation policy, which required the flyers to be pre-approved by the university.

If administrators ended Voisin’s demonstration because it was not in line with the school’s values, that is viewpoint discrimination.

FIRE wrote Loyola on Nov. 7 to request more information about this incident and to urge the university to narrow the solicitation policy and bring its other policies into agreement with one another. The university responded by saying it acted in accordance with its policies, but offered no further details.

This is troubling, because the details we already know paint a different picture. 

Loyola’s promises of free expression include the right to dissent. University policy reads: “Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are encouraged and supported at Loyola University New Orleans. Implicit in these freedoms and with regard for the common purposes of the institution is the right to dissent and demonstrate in a peaceful and non-disruptive manner.”

Further, elsewhere in university policy, Loyola states that debate and other forms of expression are permitted on campus “regardless of the content or viewpoints expressed” so long as they are nondisruptive and “are consistent with the mission and goals of the University.” 

These policies, read alongside each other, directly conflict, or at the very least are confusing to students, and can produce situations exactly like this one. On one hand, students have the right to dissent, but on the other, that dissent . . . needs to be in line with the university’s mission. Yet dissent, by definition, involves disagreement with authority or the popular consensus. 

FIRE has written before about how contradictory policies like these chill student speech by creating “a false dichotomy that students must forgo certain interests in civil discourse and speculative conversation should they wish to pursue an education within a religious context.” 

Private institutions, especially religious ones, sometimes prioritize other values over free speech — often causing FIRE to label them “Warning schools.” Unlike a traditional Warning school which explicitly places some values above freedom of expression, Loyola tries to have it both ways, both promising free expression to its students in one policy, and contradicting that promise in another. 

Even if Loyola was merely enforcing its solicitation policy, that doesn’t resolve our concerns about the state of free speech at the university.

Loyola is not unique in making promises of free expression that include the right to dissent, as long as that dissent is in line with the university’s religious mission, but such contradictions send confusing messages and produce chilling effects on student speech — as aptly demonstrated here.

Policies aside, another wrinkle in the situation is the university’s apparent shift in rationale after the incident, when an administrator invoked the solicitation policy to explain why Voisin could not hand out the flyers. (If that is the case, the university has some questions to answer for changing its story.) 

Even if Loyola was merely enforcing its solicitation policy, that doesn’t resolve our concerns about the state of free speech at the university. According to Loyola’s policies in the Student Organization Handbook, solicitation is “any activity that seeks to make contact with students, faculty and/or staff to collect information, sell items, or gain support.” This definition applies to a wide range of activities, including “advertising, selling, petitioning, campaigning, distributing flyers, product orientation, and surveying residents by telephone, mail, e-mail, or in person.” Under this policy, student groups must get approval from the administration in order to engage in a broad range of expressive activities. 

It also means the university should seriously reflect on its solicitation policy — because it’s ripe for abuse. As we wrote in the letter:

The [solicitation] policy gives Loyola a loophole to control a broad range of student speech on campus by labeling it “solicitation.” In requiring on-campus student groups to submit such a wide range of expressive activities for pre-approval — even attempts to simply “gain support” or petition for a cause — Loyola erects against a wide array of students’ expressive conduct a significant prior restraint — which are “the most serious and least tolerable infringement” of free speech. This is so for a number of reasons, not the least of these is that they prevent students from engaging in spontaneous expression, which is required to, for example, respond to newsworthy events, or stage counterprotests, while the events remain in the public’s attention.

If administrators ended Voisin’s demonstration because it was not in line with the school’s values, that is viewpoint discrimination, and in violation of the school’s promise that students enjoy the right to dissent. If, instead, administrators ended the demonstration because of the solicitation policy, then that policy must be narrowed, as it risks implicating protected expression. Either way, the university’s shifting rationale chilled speech, and its involvement of police officers to stop Voisin from verbally promoting the event is even more concerning.

Loyola’s stonewalling in response to FIRE’s letter is equally disappointing. The university apparently cannot decide why it shut down Voisin’s demonstration, and its stated reasons run contrary to its strong — albeit qualified — free speech promises. Whatever its reasons, student expression, even at private, religious universities, still matters, and Loyola administrators did not act above board by changing their story after the incident. This shifting rationale, combined with the university’s evasive response to our inquiries, is inexcusable.

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