The First Amendment Applies to Students, Too

(Editor’s note: This article was published in the Raleigh News and Observer on February 16, 2014.) 

Public universities in North Carolina recognize a wide diversity of student groups, including those that have religious or other belief-based missions. This recognition enables student organizations to access university facilities and (sometimes) apply for funding.

At some campuses, however, the lack of clear policies protecting the First Amendment rights of students in those groups has led to unnecessary legal woes for students and prevented groups from carrying out their legitimate missions. The UNC Board of Governors is expected to discuss the issue at its meeting today.

Universities have muzzled their speech, mandated whom they must accept as leaders and members and abridged their freedom of association.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, such problems have been frequent. In the fall of 2011,for example, members of a Christian a cappella group voted to terminate the membership of a student because of his views on homosexuality. University administrators then investigated the group, Psalm 100, to determine whether its support of its religious tenets had violated the university’s anti-discrimination policy.

The university cleared the group after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reminded UNC administrators of their own policy, which allows groups to limit membership to those who share the beliefs of the group, “so long as this does not result in exclusion based on religious status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

That policy, although not ideal, gives students more protection than they had in the past. In 2003, UNC-Chapel Hill attempted to prevent a Christian fraternity from choosing members based on belief but was stopped by a federal judge’s injunction. In 2002, an administrator threatened the InterVarsityChristian Fellowship with a loss of all privileges and funding because it required its leaders to adhere to the IVCF’s Christian doctrine.

UNC-Greensboro has a similar policy. It states, “Student groups that select their members on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs (e.g., religious or political beliefs) may limit membership and participation in the group to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the group’s goals and agree with its beliefs.” In spite of this policy, “Make Up Your Own Mind,” a pro-marriage, pro-life club at UNC-Greensboro, was initially denied recognition. The university claimed that the club was not religious, even though the club required its members and leaders to agree with its faith-based statement.

Unfortunately, some other UNC schools lack any explicit policies protecting student groups’ freedom to select members and leaders using belief-based criteria. Across the system, universities’ policies to protect student groups are vague, weak or non-existent. Alone, UNC-Chapel Hill’s repeated attempts to bully Christian student groups have wasted countless hours, legal fees and taxpayer dollars.

UNC Chancellor Tom Ross recently reported to the UNC Board of Governors on this issue. While he has “asked staff to continue working with the campuses” on their policies, he made it clear that he does not acknowledge that a problem exists. Yet a number of schools have policies that contradict Ross’s upbeat assessment.

For example, at Appalachian State, a group’s purpose must be “compatible with the overall mission of the university” and there must be a “need” for the organization. Who is to decide whether a pro-marriage group, based on Christian faith, fulfills a “need”?

At East Carolina, a vague policy prohibits student groups from “impairing” individuals’ “freedom of thought and choice” by means of “mental stress.” The standard set by this policy is so low that almost any student group could potentially violate it.

Thus there is a serious conflict between First Amendment rights protecting free speech, freedom of association and free exercise of religion and the universities’ nondiscrimination or diversity policies. By confusing discrimination with free expression, universities continue to place their politically correct agenda above First Amendment guarantees.

The North Carolina legislature can head off future abuses by taking students’ rights out of the hands of university administrators and passing a law that protects the rights of students at all of our public universities.

Ohio has taken such action. Its recent legislation prohibits universities from taking any action or enforcing any policy “that would deny a religious student group any benefit available to any other student group based on the … requirement that its leaders or members adhere to its sincerely held religious beliefs or standards of conduct.”

Here in North Carolina, passing similar legislation would end the problem. Because universities have shown that they won’t be held accountable by their own policies and that even the best university policy can be undermined by uncooperative administrators, legislation instituting a systemwide protection may be the only way to guarantee that universities cannot run roughshod over the First Amendment rights of students.

Jenna Robinson is director of outreach for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Tami Fitzgerald is executive director of the NC Values Coalition. John Rustin, president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, and Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also contributed.