Boston College officials are threatening to take disciplinary measures against a group of students who are distributing condoms out of their dorm rooms, calling the act a violation of the university’s mission as a Catholic institution.
In a move that has the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatening legal action, BC officials sent a letter to students on March 15 demanding an end to student-run Safe Sites, a network of dorm rooms and other locations where free contraceptives and safe-sex information are available.
Students living in the Safe Sites were told in the letter that the distribution of condoms is in conflict with their “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”
The letter, signed by Paul J. Chebator, the dean of students, and George Arey, director of residence life, says that “while we understand that you may not be intentionally violating university policy, we do need to advise you that should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the university.”
Lizzie Jekanowski, who is chairwoman of BC Students for Sexual Health, said that the Safe Sites program fills a need that the university is not filling for its students. Students who go to any of the 18 locations, which include one off-campus location, as well as dorms, can pick up free male and female condoms, lubricant, and pamphlets about sexual health.
Jekanowski, a senior from Williamsburg who is majoring in political science, said in a telephone interview that the administration has been aware of these sites for some time and has never taken action. She said that she was upset that BC officials did not reach out to members of the sexual health group before sending the letters and that the group has always been transparent with the administration.
“We were very disappointed that the signatories of the letter never contacted us beforehand,” she said. “We’ve had a very open relationship, and it’s been very positive. This letter was very war-mongering and threatening.”
Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Tuesday that she has consulted with members of the student group, and although she understands that the university is religiously affiliated, she believes it is violating the law.
“I am very disturbed, and the students have rights that are at stake here,” Wunsch said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Wunsch called BC’s actions “entirely inappropriate” and said that if school did not reconsider its threat of disciplinary action, she plans to take legal action.
“We’re up to a fight, if they are up for a fight,” she said. “But we’d rather not fight about this.”
Jekanowski said the student group will continue to distribute condoms and has meetings scheduled with six directors of various BC administrative offices at the end of April.
The student organization receives a $400 grant each semester from Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group whose website says it “champions efforts to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.’’
In addition, the BC student group says it gives out 1,000 to 1,500 condoms per semester from the Great American Condom Campaign, a group that distributes condoms to college campuses across the country.
The BC Students for Sexual Health group says it was also recently given a $500 grant and several hundred female condoms from FC2, a female condom company.
Jack Dunn, a spokesman for BC, said in an e-mailed statement that the students know the public distribution of condoms violates the university’s policies and values.
“As a Jesuit, Catholic university, there are certain Catholic commitments that Boston College is called to uphold,” Dunn wrote. “We ask our students to respect these commitments, particularly as they pertain to Catholic social teaching on the sanctity of life.
“We recognize that, as a reflection of society at large, many students do not agree with the church’s position on these issues. However, we ask those who do not agree to be respectful of our position and circumspect in their private affairs.”
He also wrote that he hopes the students will “accept our offer to meet with administrators and members of the Jesuit community to discuss this issue in a respectful, constructive format.”
This is not the first time a local Catholic college has tried to prohibit the distribution of birth control on campus.
In 2009, the Globe reported that a student at Stonehill College in Easton collected hundreds of free condoms from two family-planning agencies. She and approximately 20 classmates placed the boxes of condoms in student dormitories.
When college officials learned of the students’ actions, they confiscated the boxes because of the school’s ban against distributing birth control.
“We’re a private Catholic college,” Stonehill spokesman Martin McGovern told the Globe shortly after the incident. “We make no secret of our religious affiliation, and our belief system is fairly straightforward. We don’t expect everyone on campus to agree with our beliefs, but we would ask people, and students in particular, to respect them.”
In 2009, students at BC passed a referendum urging the college to offer affordable testing for sexually transmitted infections and access to contraception.
At the time, a college spokesman told a Catholic publication that the referendum was nonbinding and the school would not change its policies.
Jekanowski said she sees the distribution of contraceptives and information to be in accordance with the Jesuit mission.
“We see it as very intrinsic of being a Jesuit that we provide these resources and we affirm the whole person,” she said. “Students shouldn’t have to choose between holistic health care and a world class institution.”
Katherine Landergan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.