Deconstructing Free Assembly

Important building blocks of freedom are coming under assault by the forces of political correctness on college campuses around the country this winter. One such battlefront is my own school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The recent spate of mischief began with a 2010 Supreme Court case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. At the heart of Christian Legal Society was whether a Christian group at the University of California’s Hastings Law School could continue to require that its leaders be Christians. By deciding against the Christian Legal Society by a 5-4 majority, the Court ruled that schools can force religious and political student organizations to accept members and leaders who do not share the group’s values.

The decision is a clear threat to the right to free assembly guaranteed in the First Amendment. It cracks open the door just enough to allow universities to effectively regulate through their “nondiscrimination” policies what student groups may or may not believe.

And some schools are taking advantage of that decision to impose conformity on student organizations that swim against the politically correct tide. Vanderbilt University is undergoing a campus-wide debate after university administration implemented an “all-comers” policy, in which belief-based groups cannot take prospective members’ beliefs into account when considering them for membership. Vanderbilt’s Christian groups have been active in challenging the administration on its new policy. They have pointed out—correctly—the contradiction in implementing an all-comers policy while nonetheless supporting a Greek system and various gender-segregated sports clubs and singing groups. Only Vanderbilt’s political and religious, specifically Christian, groups are targeted by the all-comers policy.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, a similar controversy has arisen. A Christian a cappella singing group, Psalm 100, voted a gay member out of the group last August. Psalm 100 says it took action because of the member’s views on homosexuality—action permissible under the existing policies. The current policies separate belief from status; that is, a group cannot discriminate against a gay member for being gay, but a group can require that members believe homosexuality is a sin.

The legal landmark for the current policy at UNC is Alpha Iota Omega Christian Fraternity v. Moeser. Initially, Alpha Iota Omega had refused to sign a nondiscriminatory statement, since the members’ Christianity was the fraternity’s reason for existing in the first place. The fraternity dropped the case once UNC (under Chancellor James Moeser) reversed course and allowed student groups to deny membership to those who oppose their defining beliefs. (The Supreme Court recently bolstered the case for educational groups that wish to restrict membership and leadership roles to adherents by deciding for a Lutheran school in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.)

Critics of Psalm 100’s action instead assert that the organization kicked the student out because he was gay. If true, this would not be permitted under the school’s nondiscrimination policy, as it prohibits exclusion based on personal characteristics, such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. In the subsequent investigation, university administrators found that Psalm 100 did not violate the existing nondiscrimination policy. The administration’s decision angered many people in the university community, and the school acquiesced to their demands by establishing a task force consisting of students, administrators, faculty, and leaders of campus organizations.

According to a student member, the task force has three options:

  1. Implement an all-comers policy.
  2. Implement a modified all-comers policy, in which a student group can take prospective members’ beliefs into account, but none related to “personal characteristics” (i.e., “a Christian organization couldn’t require that gay members believe homosexuality is a sin”)
  3. Make no change.

Based on what I saw at the task force meeting on February 1, as well as my knowledge of the individuals involved due to my extensive involvement in the UNC student government, I suspect the university will most likely implement a modified version of the all-comers policy. At the meeting, members of the task force questioned whether the “belief-status binary”—a term used to describe what some see as the artificial separation of one’s belief from one’s personal characteristics was relevant any more, given that our beliefs are inextricably intertwined with who we are. Terri Phoenix, Director of the UNC LGBTQ Center, asked, “Is it harmful to disentangle belief from status?”

The general tone at the meeting indicated that many in attendance agreed with her view that separating belief from status could cause harm.

If the university indeed decides to implement an all-comers policy, or something similar, it would have dire implications for the free discussion of political ideas and the free association of like-minded individuals on campus. Consider how an all-comers policy would affect religious groups. Currently, the bylaws of the Muslim Students Association require that only members can serve in leadership positions, and, to be a member, one must “strictly accept doctrines prescribed in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as practiced by Ahl-Al Sunnah Wa Al-Jama’a.” In what world would it make sense that the MSA would have to accept a non-Muslim as a member or leader?

But the implications go well beyond the question of whether religious groups are forced to accept dissenters. Young Democrats would be forced to accept Republicans into their membership, even though they fundamentally disagree with their values and beliefs. These Republican members would be allowed to vote on the Young Democrats’ endorsements, and they could be elected to its executive board. A contingent of College Republicans could vote as a bloc when sensitive decisions are made, and therefore they could dictate the Young Democrats’ policy.

A College Republican takeover of the Young Democrats, while hypothetically possible, is improbable. The Young Democrats are a very large organization with a much larger membership than the College Republicans; they could easily fend off any such unwanted intrusion into their ranks. The real problem would be for smaller organizations, particularly those with a conservative or religious emphasis (such as Psalm 100).

A particularly vulnerable organization is the conservative publication Carolina Review. Not only does it have a staff of only 25 students, it has already had issues stolen, magazine stands taken, and other hostile actions taken against it; with a change in policies, there is a real threat that a left-wing group would try to take over the magazine.

Even more problematic than the likelihood of unwanted takeovers is the future possibility that the university would use the new policy to determine which views are acceptable for student groups to hold. Extending the logic of the all-comers policy proponents, if the policy is called bad, and the policy and the person are one, isn’t that the same as calling the person bad? If the beliefs and the person are intrinsically tied together, an attack on affirmative action could also be construed as an attack on minorities, since support for affirmative action is considered to be inherent part of minority group members’ beliefs.  

Such a precedent set by an all-comers policy could have a chilling effect on free speech. The university would have the tools to tolerate only those beliefs that it finds tolerable.

Proponents of a policy change claim that the only thing at stake is official university recognition—a point that Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls invoked to downplay the importance of any potential change. But revoking recognition is an extremely powerful weapon in the hands of administrators. Official university recognition gives student organizations access to the very large pool of money disbursed from student activity fees. It also allows them to advertise around campus, reserve rooms for meetings, and gives them all sorts of other intangibles.  

An all-comers policy (or even a “modified” all-comers policy) for UNC would severely curtail the free marketplace of ideas that should be one of the primary goals of a university. Either policy would give administrators the power to deem certain beliefs discriminatory and, thus, forbidden, abandoning America’s long tradition of political and religious freedom.