Conservative group sues university for revoking recognition status after Michael Knowles speech

A sign sits at the entrance of the State University of New York at Buffalo campus. | Wikimedia Commons/Nikopoley

A Young Americans for Freedom chapter is accusing the University at Buffalo of revising its policies to suppress the conservative youth organization in violation of the group's First Amendment right of free speech and assembly. 

Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious freedom legal nonprofit, filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York on behalf of three students. 

The three students listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Justin Hill, Jacob Cassidy and Amelia Slusarz. UB Vice President for Student Life Brian Hamluk, Interim Dean of Students Elizabeth Lidano and UB Director of Student Engagement Phyllis Floro are listed as defendants. 

According to the lawsuit, the university voted to revise its club recognition policies on March 27 after the YAF group hosted Michael Knowles, a conservative podcast host for The Daily Wire, on March 9. 

Knowles is an outspoken critic of gender ideology, and he has frequently condemned the concept of allowing children to make life-altering changes to their bodies or change their pronouns to align with their perceived sex instead of their biological one. The list of "speech topics" included with the biography of Knowles compiled on the YAF website reads, "Men are not women."

The new University at Buffalo policy stated that clubs may not be affiliated with an outside organization, allowing exceptions for certain groups that exist solely for inter-collegiate competition. While the school had recognized the YAF chapter since 2017, the new policy revoked the group's recognition, according to the lawsuit. 

"It has been well-established since at least 1972 that affiliation with a national organization is 'an impermissible basis upon which to deny First Amendment rights' of association to student organizations at public universities," the lawsuit reads. "But today, University at Buffalo Staff and the UB Student Association acting under authority from the University have done just that." 

"Defendants have derecognized and barred Young Americans for Freedom from benefits on campus because they are a chapter of a national organization — Young America's Foundation," the document continued. 

Following the derecognition, the YAF chapter alleged that it is no longer eligible for the budget once allocated to it through the Mandatory Student Activity Fee. The conservative group is also unable to reserve spaces for meetings or events, table at the Student Union or recruit members. 

The complaint asserted that the defendants violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the students as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and noted that the plaintiffs seek "injunctive and declaratory relief and nominal damages to vindicate and safeguard these fundamental rights." 

The lawsuit also highlighted remarks by the student body president at the time of the policy revision. At this time, the student president had sought legal counsel and told the Student Association Senate, "We all know why we're doing this," which the suit argues is an admission that the revision was targeted at the YAF chapter. 

Furthermore, the ADF lawsuit stated that the Student Association and university moved forward with derecognizing the groups, including the YAF chapter, despite warnings that the policies would violate the Constitution. The suit also noted that the association had ample time to change the policies after receiving the warning. 

In addition to the YAF chapter, other derecognized groups include Brothers and Sisters in Christ (BASIC), Turning Point USA (TPUSA), Amnesty International and Circle K (Kiwanis International).

"Associating with likeminded peers on campus to discuss relevant issues is fundamental to the rights of free speech and exercise that the First Amendment protects," ADF Senior Counsel Caleb Dalton asserted in the legal organization's Friday statement on the matter. "But instead of protecting an open and free marketplace of ideas, officials at the University at Buffalo have violated Young Americans for Freedom's constitutionally protected freedom to assemble and speak," Dalton continued.

Additionally, Dalton insisted that "Public universities can't punish students because of their political or religious viewpoints or affiliation with a national organization."

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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