Boston College alumni, professors, and local health groups have joined a chorus of support for the BC Students for Sexual Health, whose members were threatened with disciplinary action if they do not stop handing out condoms on campus.
The threat, which came in a March 15 letter to students who host condom pickups, was the boiling point after four years of simmering tension between the university and its students.
In a spat that has garnered national attention and renewed the longstanding national battle between Catholic colleges and their students over contraception on campus, the Boston College students have insisted they will continue handing out condoms — even if it means expulsion.
“We’ve had a huge showing of support,” said Lizzie Jekanowski, a senior at BC and the student group’s leader. “We’re not letting this threat compromise our mission to provide students with vital sexual health resources.”
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has vowed legal action against BC, alleging the university has violated the students’ free speech and expression rights by threatening them for handing out contraception. Both the college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the state’s Planned Parenthood League have issued statements in support of the students.
“Birth control is basic health care, no matter where you work or go to school,” said Martha Walz, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Impeding students’ access to the tools and information they need to make smart, healthy decisions is irresponsible and short-sighted on the part of the Boston College administration.”
BC officials insist that, as a private school, the college has the right to regulate student behavior and ban condom distribution on campus in order to remain in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings that the use of contraception is sinful.
“We recognize that, as a reflection of society at large, many students do not agree with the Church’s position on these issues,” said Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, in a statement last week. “However, we ask those who do not agree to be respectful of our position, and circumspect in their private affairs.”
And they are not alone.
More than half a dozen Catholic colleges across the country — including Georgetown, Notre Dame, and the Catholic University of America — said their university policies prohibit contraception distribution on campus and they would pursue similar discipline against a student group that defied university requests to stop handing out condoms.
“If a student or student group was doing something like this on our campus, we would ask them to stop,” said Steve Maurano, a spokesman for Providence College, a 4,500-student Catholic school in Rhode Island. “We would look at it as something that is at issue with our Catholic beliefs.”
Meanwhile, an online petition for alumni to show their support for BC Students for Sexual Health has amassed more than a thousand signatures.
Members of the group say the current clash is just the latest incarnation of what they say has been a four-year holy war between them and the administration.
In 2009, a group of students led by Scott Jelinek, student body vice president at the time, successfully placed a referendum on the campuswide ballot calling for the availability of sexual health information and contraception.
Nearly 90 percent of the more than 4,000 students who voted cast ballots in favor of the measure. But when BC officials said that, despite the student vote, they would not change campus policy, Jelinek and other students founded BC Students for Sexual Health and began handing out condoms themselves.
At first, students would tape condoms on dorm doors that they declared safe sites. When the university complained that this was disruptive, the group moved the sites into the dorm rooms themselves, at the suggestion of university officials.
In addition to the sites, the group worked with the city of Newton to get permitting to hand out condoms on public sidewalks on Fridays.
According to the students, BC officials then dispatched campus police to shut down the public condom handouts. The students refused to disperse; instead they produced their permit and called Newton police to protect them from arrest.
“We were almost arrested for handing out condoms — which isn’t isn’t illegal in the real world — and they tried to claim that we were trespassing,” Jelinek said.
Despite those public clashes, current and previous Students for Sexual Health leaders say they have had a cooperative and productive — if strained — relationship with the administration in recent years.
Until this month, that is.
On March 15, BC Dean of Students Paul J. Chebator and George Arey, director of residence life, sent a letter to students who hosted condom pickups in their dorms, demanding an end to the safe sites program.
Group leaders say they were blindsided by the letter, signed by the two administrators with whom they had previously met and forged compromises.
In the weeks since, that relationship has continued to publicly sour, and the students and university have engaged in a media battle throughout most of Easter weekend.
In a interview broadcast on CNN on Friday night, a BC spokesman accused the group of being disruptive on campus and handing out condoms outside of a campus church on Ash Wednesday, a charge the students emphatically deny.
“They’re trying to paint us as this radical group that is doing all of these crazy things,” said Jelinek, who graduated in 2010. “That is not the case whatsoever.”
The back-and-forth has set the scene for what will be a closely watched meeting between university officials and the student group set to take place in April.