Officials at the University at Buffalo Wednesday disputed allegations made in a federal lawsuit filed by members of a pro-life student group who claim UB has helped create an intimidating atmosphere that violates their rights of free speech.
Dennis R. Black, the university's dean of students and associate vice president, said in a prepared response that accusations made by University Students for Life run counter to what UB has stood for through the years.
"The University at Buffalo has a long history and tradition of serving as a marketplace for ideas, in and out of the classroom," Black said.
"Often over the decades, UB has been the site of speakers, presentations, meetings, demonstrations, and exhibits seemingly representing every side of almost every issue," he said.
UB was hit by the long-expected suit Tuesday, filed on behalf of the pro-life group by attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia Beach, Va. advocacy group led by former Town of Tonawanda anti-abortion activist the Rev. Paul Schenck.
University officials initially declined to comment until they had a chance to read the lawsuit.
Black said Wednesday that UB would not respond in detail because of the litigation, but he offered these responses to major points the students raised in their lawsuit and in a later press conference held at U.S. District Court.
The pro-life students say they were denied the opportunity to hold a conference and erect an anti-abortion memorial of 4,400 white crosses in April after university officials demanded a $4,800 bond. They said other groups do not have to post such a bond.
"Under a previously established 'major students events' policy, UB projected campus costs of several thousand dollars for the proposed weeklong student display and conference," Black said.
Because the students could show no financial resources, he said, the university required a bond. The $4,800 bond would have cost $500.
The students said the university refuses to fund their group because of religious and political reasons while at the same time providing funding for Jewish, Muslim and Hindu associations.
"Government and student organizations are funded at UB by students, not the university, through a student activity fee," Black said. "Students vote to 'tax' themselves and are responsible for the amount, budget, and distribution of their own mandatory student activity fees.
"These funds are managed by the students, under broad State University guidelines," Black said. "Therefore, student organizations' management and financial decisions are made by students, not the university."
A former writer for the student newspaper "The Spectrum" violated the university's anti-bias policy by publishing an editorial in October 1995 encouraging students to spit at or kick pro-life students and should have been punished, the pro-life students charged.
Students for Life were given an opportunity to file charges against the two students involved in the newspaper article, Black said.
"The students were charged with violating student rules and regulations," he said. "However, prior to a formal student-wide judiciary hearing, the parties voluntarily agreed to a settlement offer, resolving the disciplinary case."
University Students for Life dropped its case against the Spectrum after the newspaper agreed to publish a one-page, single-spaced letter.
The university has always supported free speech, Black said, "because it understands and appreciates that free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the objectives of any higher education institution and society.
"However," he added, "without respect for the right of others and maintenance of public order appropriate to a college campus, there can be no intellectual freedom."
The lawsuit, besides seeking funding and equal protection for the pro-life students, also asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.