Opinion

UK right to apologize to conservative student group after ‘Jesus tap dancing Christ’ message

cbertram@herald-leader.com

I’ve generally been skeptical of the notion of academic censorship of conservative views at the University of Kentucky, a place that’s hardly dominated by progressive students or sentiments.

But UK recently got into a kerfuffle with a conservative student group that will give plenty of ammunition to those who think this threat is real.

A group of UK students tried to start a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a group started in 1960 at the Sharon, Connecticut house of William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review who is considered the father of the modern conservative movement. At that same meeting, organizers created The Sharon Statement, which affirmed their beliefs in free will, free markets, a small government, and a continued fight against communism, then deemed the “greatest single threat” to American liberty. Two years later, Ronald Reagan joined the national board, a relationship that would last more than 40 years.

According to a timeline provided by UK, YAF was registered as a student organization in 2018. When it was time to re-register, they did so, and for some reason, UK officials missed the fact they were already registered and processed them as a new organization. They were asked to provide more information, such as a charter and online campus security training and a non-discirmination statement.

The group’s charter asked applicants to adhere to the Sharon Statement, but said membership would not discriminate based on age, race, sex, religion or national origin.

Because of the delays, the national YAF’s “Censorship Exposed” project filed an open records request for the administrative communication about YAF, and they hit a goldmine. In June, some employees in the student organization office started emailing and messaging about the group, admitting their concerns about the group and the Sharon Statement.

“Oh Jesus tap dancing Christ,” one of them messaged, amid lots of “lols!”

“They are going to be mad they waited forever and I denied them,” another said.

UK is taking this seriously because officials apologized immediately after these communications were revealed.

“We apologize for what happened and have taken steps to ensure that it does not occur again,” said spokesman Jay Blanton. “From our review of all the correspondence, this process was handled in accordance with our regulations — regulations designed to ensure fairness and access to all potential student organizations. That said, we are reinforcing with all of our staff the importance of using appropriate language that does not inadvertently create any misperceptions regarding the work we are doing and the seriousness with which all of our staff members do it. We expect everyone — regardless of who they are, where they are from, or what they believe — to be treated with respect.”

UK has 562 student organizations, including College Republicans and numerous religious student clubs. And now the YAF.

But the story has been widely broadcast on conservative websites like Townhall.com, and brought in FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Public universities like UK, can’t deny recognition to a student group based on its viewpoints,” said FIRE spokeswoman Alex Morey. “The back and forth at a minimum, is a strong indication there was motivation to discriminate based on viewpoint.”

The local student organizers of YAF declined to comment on the matter. But “free speech” is becoming increasingly polarized and college campuses are seen as an important battlefront amid discussions of “safe spaces” on college campuses. All this underlines the fact that the First Amendment bears zealous watching, no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on. UK was right to apologize, right to talk to their employees, right to release the communications even though they create short-term embarrassment.

Also, just a reminder, if you work for a public agency, your communications are subject to the open records act. LOL!

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.

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