An Unwise Way to Protect Freedom of Association

Editor’s note: This is a response to  UNC student Anthony Dent’s article, Deconstructing Free Assembly,” in which he describes how his school is encroaching on the right of Christian and conservative groups to free assembly according to one’s beliefs. Dent gets the final say at the bottom of the article.

UNC-Chapel Hill student Anthony Dent recently described how his college—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—has manipulated the goal of “inclusiveness” to undermine conservative student groups. I have sympathy for the students, but the way campus conservatives are fighting back is troubling.

In this case the administration’s target was a Christian a cappella singing group, Psalm 100, that sought to exclude a gay student, since the group, as Christian believers, holds that homosexuality is a sin. So far, the group has been allowed that exclusion, but the policy is coming under fire. The hair-splitting administration claims that the only permissible discrimination can be for belief but not for “status.” Since being gay is the student’s “status,” the exclusion may be impermissible. This legalism is, of course, a ruse to obscure the administration’s Big Brother-like over-reach. (Just wait until some anatomically correct male wants to join the women’s rugby team since he believes himself to be “a woman in a man’s body.”) The blunt truth is that these campus anti-discrimination efforts target only conservative groups. This is ideological cleansing and hardly confined to UNC.

It is more than a little ironic that conservative students—represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE),  etc.—are responding with one of the Left’s favorite weapons—litigation—rather than free markets. An unwise strategy. Going to court is far too time-consuming, expensive, and of uncertain effectiveness. Indeed, suing is the equivalent of cutting up starfish—the diversicrats will only multiply. With anti-discrimination measures “under assault,” universities must hire more lawyers, more non-academic staff to fine-tune everything.

Here’s my advice to every campus student group, conservative and liberal, radical and reactionary: Don’t take the money! Accepting handouts from your college or university inevitably brings strings. Today’s strings will ensnarl those on the Right, but this could change tomorrow and, rest assured, no critters out-perform university administrators in sensing shifting political winds and getting with the latest ideological fad.

Begin by recognizing that on today’s administratively top-heavy campus there are scores of under-employed bureaucrats on the lookout for meddling opportunities. It’s not easy being Assistant Dean for Inclusion and Diversity—so many hours, so little to do. So, like a five-year old who just received a screwdriver for Christmas, that deanlet will get busy. Guaranteed, these bureaucrats will sniff out an almost invisible exclusion and discrimination, create a committee, write turgid rules, consult with university lawyers, hold several meetings, share ideas, engage in meaningful dialogues, issue fatwas and, voilà, another year’s worth of fighting injustice accomplished.

Forget about filing suit to obstruct the meddling. Yes, a free-expression pro bono group like FIRE may win a judgment, but Energizer Bunny-like, diversicrats will be back with some other convoluted excuse or will just ignore the court degree. After all, they are not personally responsible for First Amendment violations and, thanks to “free” university-supplied legal advice, they can wage a war of attrition. The commitment to a discrimination-free environment cannot be built overnight. Keep in mind that for these defenders of the faith, their very livelihoods depend on promoting unconstitutional measures, so why surrender after a single loss?

Getting off the King’s shilling is not especially difficult, though care should be taken not to imply any campus affiliation lest the Energizer Bunny diversicrats sue for unauthorized use of schools symbols or logos. Start by holding all meetings off-campus, even in bars and restaurants happy to lend business-generating meeting rooms. Sympathetic faculty and students themselves may have apartments sufficiently large to hold events. Perhaps some wealthy alum could be enticed to buy a small office building and rent space so as to fight PC and earn money at the same time. Raising money is hardly rocket science. The web overflows with tactics (see here) and group alums can always be solicited. Surely Psalm 100 can give church concerts and pass the hat. How about sponsoring an election for the most politically correct administrator—with votes as donations? This entrepreneurial experience is also great real-world training.

Group financial autonomy is only the beginning. As any observer of today’s political correctness disease on campus will attest, the most infected areas are the non-academic portions of university life. These would include campus housing with its mandatory freshman diversity seminars, divisions of “campus life” that obsess with making every once-marginalized group feel welcomed by having a university-funded office and director, plus multiple other non-academic campus entities filled by people whose singular allure is the biological diversity that universities need to make the numbers.

The pernicious parasites cannot be fired nor have their missions constrained. They resemble impossible-to-kill zombies or, better yet, as any Trekkie will recognize, “We are the Borg. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

In the end, of course, the aim of those who relish liberty should be the withering away of the politically correct state and that can only be accomplished by reducing universities to exclusively academic bodies. The traditional German university is the model—classes with professors and a dean or two, that’s it. Sell off or at least outsource with annual contracts the sports facilities, the dormitories, the recreational facilities, food service, the campus bookstore, tutoring and remedial services (Stanley Kaplan, here we come) campus security and anything else that does not directly affect learning and research. Tuition would drop and freedom would soar. That would give Psalm 100 something to sing about.

Anthony Dent replies:

I appreciate Dr. Weissberg’s reply. Conservative groups at UNC have reacted to the difficulty of receiving student fee money by taking steps to raise money. For example, they created the Carolina Liberty Foundation, which raises funds from across the state for student groups that support free enterprise and individual responsibility. To my knowledge, Psalm 100, the organization at the center of the recent controversy, earns money through CD sales and concerts.

But it’s not just a matter of funding. The proposed changes to the nondiscrimination policy will impact an organization’s right to exist. Certainly, organizations can operate without official university recognition, but without official status, and without the benefits that come with official recognition, such as access to campus meeting rooms, it will be extremely difficult for them to recruit and keep members. Conservative student groups without official recognition are likely to be reduced to, and never grow beyond, a few hard-core adherents who arrived at college with their belief systems firmly in place. UNC’s conservative groups have had great success in attracting new members to their cause in recent years by winning students’ hearts and minds; ending their official status would likely put an end to that momentum.

I also disagree that it is appropriate to entirely cede the field to leftist groups. Conservative and libertarian students pay student fee money just like liberal students. At a visceral level, it’s simply unfair to demand students preemptively forgo all that money—they are just as entitled to a share as are their liberal counterparts. Even if the battle is ultimately futile, it’s still a fight worth having.