University Rejects Animal-Rights Club Over ‘Emotional Risk’ Concerns

A PETA activist protests outside a clothing store in Berlin in 2007. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

An invaluable part of intellectual (and personal) growth comes from having the freedom to express your own ideas, and to engage with the ideas of others.

Truman State University has rejected a student’s request to start an animal-rights club — due, in part, to worries about the “emotional risk” of potentially “hostile” confrontations.

The school reportedly also had concerns about the “reputational risk” of the proposed group being associated with PETA, according to a release published by the pro-free-speech group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“We understand that many people don’t like the idea of animal rights, but we still deserve the same platform as the other groups on campus,” the student, Naomi Mathew, said, according to FIRE.

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FIRE has submitted a letter to the university’s president, Susan L. Thomas, demanding that she confirm Mathew’s application for the club before Dec. 20 — or else the organization will take legal action.

Elsewhere, the letter notes that this recent rejection is kind of business as usual at Truman State. In fact, FIRE reports that the university has rejected almost half of students’ club applications, including one that aimed to help children with cancer — in part over concerns that there would be too “high of emotional and physical risk” stemming from students visiting the hospital.

“An administrative system which denies students’ rights to expression and association because of subjective concerns about ‘emotional’ risk is inconsistent with the First Amendment,” the letter states.

To me, it seems pretty clear that FIRE is right and Truman State is wrong. This is not, by the way, because I support the mission behind Mathew’s group. Although I certainly do love animals, I have to admit that I also love eating them. (Particularly cows. And chickens. And the occasional lamb.)

What’s more, I consider PETA to be a ridiculous group that makes ridiculous arguments. I have made fun of several of its campaigns —  such as their fight for the rights of fictional elephants, their filing of a complaint over the alleged “verbal abuse” of sheep and their demands that a bar change its name because its current one was offensive to chickens. I am, quite clearly, no fan of PETA or its way of thinking — but that doesn’t mean that I want the group to be silenced. Instead, I have simply done what we all are supposed to have the right to do in this country: to use my own speech to counter what I disagreed with, rather than to move to silence it.

FIRE’s claim is certainly compelling that Truman State’s current criteria for accepting student clubs is unconstitutional. Truman State is, after all, a public, taxpayer-funded university, and its students have First Amendment rights.The thing is, though, even if this were somehow constitutional? I would still say that this is a terrible policy for any university to have.

See, a college is supposed to be a place where its students — the vast majority of them adults, by the way — learn, grow, and prepare for the real world. An invaluable part of intellectual (and personal) growth comes from having the freedom to express your own ideas, and to engage with the ideas of others. Universities should be encouraging this, and certainly not actively discouraging it the way that Truman State has been doing. Its decision to reject a club based on the possibility of potentially “hostile” confrontations over that club’s beliefs, after all, basically amounts to its saying that the club mustn’t be allowed because its mission is known to be a subject of passionate debate.

That shouldn’t be seen as a weakness; it should be seen as an opportunity. A better approach would be for Truman State to welcome these sorts of debates, to allow students to experience both defending and challenging their ideas in a respectful, intelligent way — and to provide them with guidance on how to navigate this if necessary. Most students, after all, spend only four years in college before it’s off to the real world. Once that happens, they will have to know how to handle questions about — and even objections to — their beliefs, and they won’t have the same kind of built-in support system to help them navigate it.

Truman State may claim to want to avoid anything that presents an “emotional risk” to its students — however, they themselves are actually presenting their own “emotional risk” to anyone who graduates from there. The school’s refusal to allow their students to hone their debate skills while on campus could easily lead to even worse emotional (or even professional) problems . . . once they are forced to go out in the real world and engage in this way without having had the benefit of the experience they could have had.

Speaking of “emotional risk,” by the way, I also agree with FIRE that it is an absurdly subjective standard for deciding which clubs should and should not exist. Think about it: Literally anything could present an “emotional risk” to someone. More than once in my life, I have seen someone get very emotional because she could not get the printer to work. Armed with this knowledge, would Truman State reject any club that says its members might use printers?

It may sound like a ridiculous comparison, but in this case, I am not exactly making a “slippery slope” argument. There is already evidence of additional times that this exact subjective standard has been used to “protect” students from things that would actually be beneficial. (Such as, you know, helping kids with cancer.) When it comes to Truman State, it is not merely a concern about how this kind of language could be used to create harmful, absurd outcomes — because there are examples of how it already has. Truman State students have the right to be engaged and involved, and the fact that nearly half of their applications for clubs get rejected is not only ridiculous, but also sad.

Truman State University must absolutely change its limiting rules on which clubs it will and will not approve — not in spite of its students’ well-being, but because of it.

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