Case Status: Victory. Case settled on favorable terms

Smith v. Virginia Commonwealth University

  • Federal District Courts
Virginia Commonwealth University Campus

In 2006, CIR represented Emily Smith a 15-year-old Caucasian high school student from Chesterfield County, Virginia, attending Monacan High School with an interest in journalism, who was denied admission into a summer journalism program because of her race.

In early 2006, during her sophomore year in high school, Smith learned about a summer journalism “workshop” at Virginia Commonwealth University from a newspaper article. She went to the web site mentioned in the paper, downloaded the application and sent it in. She looked forward to getting hands-on journalism experience, including the opportunity to produce an actual newspaper. At the end of the program, Emily would have a shot at an important tuition scholarship provided only to those who had participated in the program.

Hi…what’s your race?

Emily met all of the qualifications for the workshop except for one — she was the wrong race. When she applied, she didn’t know that race was a qualification because the application materials didn’t ask her to state her race.

In April, Emily received an e-mail message telling her she had been accepted to the program. Five days later, Bonnie Davis, Co-Director of the program called Emily’s house and spoke with her mother to make sure she had received the e-mail accepting her into the program. Then, two days later, Davis phoned the Smiths again and this time spoke with Emily. Davis asked Emily her race. Emily said she was “white.” Davis told her she was “sorry” but the program was for minorities and she “couldn’t come.”

Race-exclusive, 100% minority quota

It is well-settled that programs like this one violate the U.S. Constitution and federal anti-discrimination laws. The 14th Amendment forbids states from treating individuals differently on account of race or ethnicity. The Urban Journalism Workshop excludes individuals of certain racial groups solely because of their race and for no other reason than to achieve a 100% minority quota, a rationale the Court repeatedly has declared to be “facially invalid.” Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke (1978).

Certainly, a 100%, race exclusive bar does not further classroom diversity, a rationale sometimes relied upon to justify racial preferences. Presumably, that’s why schools like Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, and others have ended race exclusive programs, facts well-reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere. And in February 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice forced Southern Illinois University to end the racial exclusivity of several graduate programs there.

Over twenty years of discrimination

Since 1984, VCU has conducted its annual summer journalism workshop on the VCU campus for high school students, in which participants study the basics of journalism and produce a short newspaper. Students who participate in the workshop meet for two weeks during the summer during which they reside in dorms on the VCU campus and attend daily classes taught by VCU employees.

The VCU program is one of dozens of identical programs conceived and funded by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, a non-profit foundation affiliated with Dow Jones, Inc. named as a defendant in CIR’s suit. The Fund requires that its summer journalism workshops be limited exclusively to minority students. According to a handbook posted on the Fund’s web site, the Fund once considered and apparently rejected a proposal to admit a limited number of non-minority students to “improve multi-cultural understanding.”

The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund solicits proposals from universities to run workshops according to requirements set by the Fund. According to the Fund’s written proposal guidelines, “[e]ach participant must be a minority (defined as U.S. citizens who are Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan native.” Last year, the Fund sponsored approximately 26 programs across the nation, of which half were jointly sponsored with public universities.

The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund requires that program co-sponsors also obtain a promise of financial support from a local newspaper, which also is expected to donate the time of minority professionals full-time during the workshop. VCU obtained support for its program from the Richmond Times Dispatch a daily newspaper in Richmond, Virginia.

CIR files suit

On September 26, 2006, CIR filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all students who are not African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Native American ancestry and who would be eligible for the VCU program but for their race. CIR alleged that the program violates the right of these individuals to equal protection under the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the program illegally discriminates on the basis of their race in violation of federal law, specifically 42 U.S.C. secs. 1981, 1983 and 2000d, et. seq. The suit sought to enjoin VCU, the Dow Jones Fund, and other defendants from continuing to exclude Caucasian students from these programs.

In February 2007, CIR reached a favorable settlement agreement with VCU and the Dow Jones Fund, in which they agreed to drop the minority-only requirement for their journalism program.

Updates on this Case

Dow Jones Fund, VCU agree to drop minority-only requirement

  • Case Updates

Journalism workshops will be open to all races Today the Dow Jones News Foundation, Virginia Commonwealth University and Media General Corp. agreed to drop all racial restrictions on participants in the Urban Journalism Workshop summer…

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CIR files class action lawsuit challenging VCU, Dow Jones Fund

  • Case Updates

Challenges minority-only national journalism program Today the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) filed a class action lawsuit challenging a minority-only summer journalism workshop sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, and the…

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