Anti-abortion activists at the Johns Hopkins University who had fought to form an official club have been fully recognized, clearing the way for them to use the institution's logo and raise cash on campus.
The university announced Wednesday that an earlier decision by the Student Government Association to block the group, Voice for Life, was reversed by a panel of student judges.
The issue has set off a storm of debate over free speech and whether anti-abortion "sidewalk counseling" constitutes harassment at the private university.
Voice for Life plans to approach women and their companions outside clinics near the Homewood campus to discuss abortion, as well as conduct on-campus demonstrations using literature and non-graphic images, said freshman Andrew Guernsey, president of the group. Guernsey said the group won't shout at or confront individuals.
Guernsey and freshman Monica Rex, another leader of the fledgling group, said the Judiciary Committee's decision clears a path for them to "begin the real work of saving lives."
"While the road was difficult, we have learned just how much this fight for life means to us, and how important it is that students at Johns Hopkins have the opportunity to hear our pro-life message," Rex said in a statement. "Johns Hopkins has always stood for the very best in higher education, and we look forward to bringing our pro-life message to future leaders in the medical industry here at Hopkins."
With the official club designation also comes the possibility for Voice for Life to receive money from the university. Clubs request money through an application process conducted by the Student Activities Commission. Hopkins has about 300 student clubs.
The five-member Judiciary Committee made clear that money for Voice for Life was not part of its decision, which followed a hearing Tuesday.
"This ruling is not a judgment of the group's eligibility for funding, or a comment on the tradition that advocacy and awareness groups do not receive annual budgets from the university," according to a statement released by the committee.
According to Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea, advocacy and awareness groups can apply for monthly allocations, which generally are related to an event or project.
Guernsey said student senators originally denied recognition to Voice for Life in late March based on a concern that its tactics would constitute harassment under Hopkins policies, although the Student Government Association said little publicly to explain its vote.
"Today is a victory not only for pro-life students here at Johns Hopkins, but for pro-life students around the country," Guernsey said in a statement. "We hope that our story of rising above discriminatory opposition can inspire pro-life students around the country to courageously take a stand for life and speak truth to power at their own college campuses."
Caitlin Fuchs-Rosner, a Hopkins senior who helped build a network of students and alumni to oppose Voice for Life, said the decision to recognize the group left her feeling let down by university leaders.
"I am disappointed, because I really had faith in my university, that our administration takes care of our students before it considers its image," she said. "I always expected that my administrators, my university would take care of me as a student, as a woman."
Alex Schupper, vice president of the student government's non-voting executive board, told Hopkins' student newspaper, the News-Letter, that Voice for Life's intended actions as a club violate the university's Code of Conduct and harassment policy.
A later analysis by university counsel came to a different conclusion.
Even so, O'Shea said the outcome of Voice for Life's fight to be sanctioned was student-led.
"It was important that student government have the opportunity to review its own decision, apply its own policies and procedures, and do so in light of Johns Hopkins' commitment to free expression and open debate," O'Shea said in a statement. "Sometimes these things take a while, but it was a good process and an educational one for all involved. We're glad to see the issue resolved by the students themselves."
Moses Song, president of the Student Government Association, said the Judiciary Committee's decision was "fair and well-informed."
"I'm looking forward to working with Voice For Life in the future," he said in a brief email.
Fuchs-Rosner plans to join a group of friends Friday for a protest at Hopkins' annual Spring Fair. She believes Voice for Life should have a right to free speech but the university should not support it by contributing money.
Fuchs-Rosner said she will help hand out condoms and promote messages such as "My body, my choice." She also intends to petition the student government to restrict clubs that attempt to promote medical misinformation.
The issue at Hopkins is the second local case recently involving free speech in academia. At Towson University, the creation of a White Student Union brought media attention to the school, and sparked a campus protest. The group isn't officially recognized at Towson because it does not have a faculty adviser or enough members.
twitter.com/yvonnewengerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun