Universal Mentors Association

U of Buffalo student clubs lose recognition due to new rule


When Suha Chowdhury started a chapter of the humanitarian aid organization Islamic Relief at the University at Buffalo, she envisioned joining with her peers to fundraise for global causes and help Buffalo-area nonprofits—all with the support of her university.

But because of a new rule introduced by the Student Association, one of the university’s student government bodies, Islamic Relief Buffalo, as it’s known, was never officially recognized as a university club and therefore wasn’t eligible for institutional backing.

The rule, an update to the existing Club Recognition policy introduced in late March, prohibits official student organizations from affiliating with outside groups. It states, “Except for clubs in the Academic, Engineering, or Sports Councils, and clubs whose sole purpose is to engage in inter-collegiate competition, no SA club may be a chapter of or otherwise part of any outside organization.”

(According to the Club Recognition policy, the vice president of the Student Association is responsible for assigning each club to a particular council.)

Some students allege the rule was added to restrict one specific conservative organization, but it ended up thwarting dozens of existing UB clubs affiliated with outside organizations—including Islamic Relief and multiple other service-based organizations. Clubs that aren’t officially recognized are not allowed to use campus space, benefit from student activity fee funding or raise money on campus, among other things.

“Student Association funds are for holding events; that’s why we pay our student activity fee. That’s where the funds are going towards,” Chowdhury said. “I know I’m very close with the president of [the UB chapter of] Amnesty International; they don’t have any resources. UNICEF doesn’t have any resources, Circle K—all of these nonprofits and humanitarian organizations that exist on campus, none of us really have any type of funding or foundation anymore.”

Response to Knowles Appearance

Despite the far-reaching impact of the new rule, some believe it was created specifically to target Buffalo’s Young Americans for Freedom club, a chapter of the influential Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth advocacy organization. That’s because it was implemented weeks after the group welcomed to campus Michael Knowles, a controversial conservative pundit who has been criticized for his comments about women, transgender people and same-sex marriage. Just a week before the talk, Knowles told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

Knowles’s appearance drew harsh backlash on campus. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the venue; one person was arrested and two were removed from the hall where the talk took place, though no charges were filed, according to the Buffalo-area CBS affiliate, WIVB.

Michael Knowles, a white man with dark hair, speaks in front of a purple and red background.

Michael Knowles, pictured here, is a controversial conservative figure who has received criticism for his statements about women and the LGBTQ community.

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Members of the UB YAF responded to the Student Association’s new rule by filing a federal lawsuit alleging that the university violated the First and 14th Amendments by denying members the right to expressive association, freedom of speech and right to assembly. The group and three of its members are being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing, nonprofit, Christian law firm focused on religious freedom and freedom of speech cases.

The complaint alleges that because the Student Association has unilateral control over which clubs are placed into the councils that are exempt from the outside affiliation rule, the Club Recognition policy “discriminates against Plaintiffs based on the content of their speech.”

The lawsuit asks for an injunction forbidding the university or those acting on its behalf from denying YAF recognition because of its affiliation with the national organization.

The Student Association did not respond to a request for comment, nor did its president, Becky Paul-Odionhin. However, on an Instagram page for her re-election campaign, she responded to criticism that she essentially forced clubs to cut ties with their affiliate organizations.

“With so many different clubs under SA that SA needs to cater to and protect, it is imperative that we ensure one club’s actions under the direction of external affiliations does not destroy all the other club’s chances to continue performing their function and advocating for students,” she wrote.

The plaintiffs argue in the complaint that they know the move was targeted at YAF because the Student Association president sought legal counsel regarding the policy update and told the Student Association Senate, “We all know why we’re doing this.”

The university declined to comment on the suit but sent an emailed statement regarding the club recognition policy.

“UB’s Division of Student Life is aware of SA’s new club recognition policy and its impact on clubs in the hobby, international, POC and special interest councils. The Office of Student Engagement is available to meet with impacted clubs to explore alternative recognizing agent opportunities that may help maintain the benefits of university-wide recognition, including the ability to reserve space on campus, table, fundraise and hold a university financial account,” the statement read. “UB strives to create an environment in which diverse opinions can be expressed and heard. As a public university, it is a fundamental value of UB that all members of the campus community have a right to express their views and opinions, regardless of whether others may disagree with those expressions.”

Service Organizations Push Back

The UB YAF and the Alliance Defending Freedom aren’t the only ones pushing back against the Student Association’s sweeping new rule. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote two letters to the university, though neither has received a response, according to Zachary Greenberg, a senior program officer with FIRE.

“This is part of a larger trend of universities and student governments retaliating against groups for expression, speakers and events they don’t like. Instead of combating these ideas with their own ideas, their own events, their own speakers, they use the power of the state, of the university, to punish these groups, to try to censor them by taking away their funding, their recognition, and by denying them a place on campus,” he said. “These actions are antithetical to free speech … and they’re the opposite of how education is supposed to work.”

Greenberg said that it’s not uncommon for student governments to use their authority to censor or restrict individual student groups. But the situation in Buffalo appears to be unique in the large number of clubs that have been impacted.

“The abuse of students’ rights is multiplied by the dozens of student groups that this policy affects,” he said.

UB students and student organizations have also rallied for the rule to be reversed. One petition, signed by 331 students, asked the student government to hold a referendum on the policy, criticizing the fact that most clubs affected by it weren’t consulted prior to the Senate vote.

Islamic Relief Buffalo also released an open letter on May 4, signed by over 30 student organizations, expressing frustration with the policy.

“As pointed out by many third-party organizations on campus, losing our affiliation would not only mean losing credibility,” it reads. “To cut our third-party ties would mean to cut ourselves off from the work that Islamic Relief does for our community on a local, national, and international scale. It would mean losing resources. Much of our resources—even things such as videos—come to us directly from the Islamic Relief national board, and are only provided to us because we are a chapter. The regional managers of Islamic Relief have served as mentors, advisers, and an irreplaceable resource to us.”

Chowdhury told Inside Higher Ed she has been working to schedule time to speak with Paul-Odionhin about how the rule has impacted the club. In the comments on her Instagram post, Paul-Odionhin said she had reached out to all of the affected clubs to arrange meetings to discuss “how we can help them perform their function under the new guidelines.”


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