Va. students lash back at Cuccinelli stance on gay rights

By Daniel de Vise
Monday, March 8, 2010; 4:08 PM

Virginia college students began to mobilize Monday in response to a legal opinion from the state's attorney general saying Virginia's public colleges have no authority to ban discrimination against gay employees.

The letter from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, dated Thursday, was made public Friday, just as many state university students were leaving for Spring Break. The geographical hurdle has pushed much of the dissent online.

More than 3,000 people have joined one Facebook page titled, "WE DON'T WANT DISCRIMINATION IN OUR STATE UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES!" Nearly 900 people have joined another page started by activists at the College of William and Mary.

The University of Virginia group Queer & Allied Activism has launched a social media campaign, urging students to protest on Cuccinelli's Facebook and Twitter pages, and to sign a petition organized by the group Equality Virginia.

Some students contend Cuccinelli released the letter late last week on purpose, because it caught many students leaving for break.

"I've never gotten so many e-mails from students wanting to do something," said Brandon Carroll, 21, student government president at Virginia Tech. In his view, any erosion in gay rights at state universities is "going to make us lose top students. It's going to make us lose top faculty."

Within the universities, talk has turned, of course, to whether the institutions will have to follow the advisory.

University officials weren't stepping forward Monday with opinions on the matter. But at the umbrella group State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, spokeswoman Kirsten Nelson responded with some historical context.

Cuccinelli reasons in his letter that only the General Assembly can assign legal protections to gay state employees.

Nelson cites the codes that lay out relationships between individual colleges and state government. By her reading, those codes "are somewhat vague," written in language that gives the institutions "a great deal of autonomy . . . historically, it has been assumed that it is the will of the General Assembly that the institutions retain broad control over their governance," she said, in an e-mail.

State colleges generally are afforded a measure of autonomy by state governments, said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a group representing presidents and provosts.

"I am sure that universities that have been implementing this policy of inclusiveness of the gay and lesbian community presumably want to continue to have that same policy," she said. "They may feel that capitulating to this directive or request puts them at a disadvantage as opposed to other major educational institutions that have largely embraced the policy of inclusiveness."

Meloy predicts that any change in anti-discrimination language would provoke outcry.

"You can just look at the issues that went on with regard to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy to see the kinds of strong feelings that arise when institutions feel they must, due to administrative or legislative fiat, disadvantage a group that they wish to include and value," she said.


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