Promoting safe sex could be dangerous for some Boston College students after school officials threatened them with disciplinary action for distributing condoms on campus, a practice administrators say violates the mission of the Catholic institution.
The email warning — which has spurred outrage and threats of legal action from the ACLU foundation of Massachusetts — was sent to students who designated their dorm rooms as "Safe Sites," places where students can go to to get free condoms and sexual health information.
The condom campaign was started in 2009 by Boston College Students for Sexual Health, an unofficial student group not recognized by the college yet has existed with the school's knowledge.
But on March 15, Dean of Students Paul Chebator and Director of Residence Life George Arey sent an email to the students saying, "The distribution of condoms is not congruent with our values and traditions."
"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,” the letter warned.
The note came as a complete shock to senior Lizzie Jekanowski, chair of Boston College Students for Sexual Health.
She said in the four years Safe Sites have existed, the group has always had "an open and positive relationship" with administrators. Though school officials have frequently told the group they are at odds with the practice of handing out contraception, Jekanowski said there have never been any warnings of disciplinary action, a notion school administrators disagree with.
"None of our actions have changed at all in the past four years," Jekanowski told NBC News. "It came out of nowhere."
The email also garnered reaction from Sarah Wunsch, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who has advised the organization over the years. The warning of disciplinary action, Wunsch said, violates the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.
"Our view is that Boston College has a First Amendment right to explain, advertise, and persuade students of their views, but they have gone a step further by threatening these students," she said.
But school officials maintain they are a private, religious institution and have the right to set and enforce policies as they see fit. Jack Dunn, spokesman for the college, dismissed the ACLU's involvement, saying they have no standing in the matter at the Jesuit school.
Dunn said that student distributing contraception had "taken it to a new level," which prompted the warning after four years of students engaging in the practice. No longer confined to dorm rooms, Dunn said students had become a visible and disruptive presence on campus, handing out condoms in front of churches and on sidewalks.
"Boston College doesn't care how students handle their private lives. You can have condoms in your room," he said. "But it has become an attempt to make a mockery out of Catholic values."
School administrators had also told the Boston College Students for Sexual Health in meetings to stop handing out condoms on campus prior to the email being sent, Dunn said.
He was hopeful a solution could be reached before any disciplinary action was taken. He would not speculate on what the punishment could be, saying they would go through the disciplinary process like any student who violated the college's code of conduct."
"If these students had been circumspect, discrete, private -- it never would have come to a head," Dunn said.
While Jekanowski said her group has handed out contraception on an off-campus sidewalk, she said she was "personally offended" by the suggestion that the students had been mocking the Catholic church. Instead, she argued, the group was living up to the school's Jesuit teachings.
"We have the privilege of attending a Jesuit Catholic university so dedicated to the development of the self — both the body and the soul — that we find it both appropriate and necessary to advocate for these sexual health issues that are an integral aspect of that process,” she said in a statement released on March 24.
Boston College Students for Sexual Health will continue to hand out contraception, and the the 18 Safe Sites will remain open, Jekanowski said. The group will meet with the dean of students and other school administrators on April 29.
Though the ACLU is hopeful the matter will remain out of court, Wunsch said the civil rights organization will be with them if it gets to that level.
"We will continue to support them however far they want to go on this issue," she said.