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Pluralism in Public Education

Colleges should avoid regulating membership in student groups

By Peter M. Bozzo

The last day of the Supreme Court’s spring 2010 term saw the release of a Second Amendment ruling that garnered massive media response, but it was another decision issued the same day that attracted the attention of the nation’s top educators. The case, entitled Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, involved the Hasting College of the Law’s decision to deny official recognition to a student group called the Christian Legal Society based on the group’s violation of the college’s “non-discrimination policy.” Prospective CLS members had to sign a “Statement of Faith” certifying that they would conduct their lives in a manner that accorded with the group’s Christian beliefs; students who did not hold those beliefs or who engaged in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” were prevented from joining.

The Supreme Court, which upheld the college’s decision to deny recognition, was correct to point to the school’s constitutional right to distribute official recognition selectively. Universities have an invested interest in the environment created on their campuses, and they have a corresponding right to discourage groups that would disturb their desired atmosphere. Colleges should be able to regulate how they distribute resources like funding and recognition to foster the kinds of groups they deem most amenable to their campus goals. Nonetheless, this case also served as a warning to universities struggling with pluralism on their campuses. Hasting College of the Law undoubtedly had a legal right to deny recognition to CLS, but it shouldn’t have done so.

Colleges should give student groups the benefit of the doubt in determining their membership. Primarily, this is because a group’s membership is inextricably linked to its expressive rights. CLS proclaims that its mission is “[t]o inspire, encourage, and equip lawyers and law students, both individually and in the community, to proclaim, love and serve Jesus Christ through the study and practice of law.” In the organization’s view, those who violate some of the principles of Christianity cannot effectively fulfill or promote this mission and must therefore be excluded.

A student who refuses to sign a “Statement of Faith” certifying his willingness to “love and serve Jesus Christ” is clearly unable to fulfill the group’s explicitly stated mission. Therefore, the group has a right to deny him or her membership, in the same way that an athletic team can cut someone who won’t help it fulfill its mission of winning games. One wonders why a person unwilling to sign the “Statement of Faith” would even seek membership in the group, as his or her fundamental beliefs conflict with those that the group is trying to promote.

In this sense, membership matters. If a group’s members hold certain beliefs contrary to its mission, they will not be able to fulfill that mission effectively. Part of an organization’s self-definition involves how it selects its members, molding itself in a way that conforms to its primary objectives. This explains why universities should not ban groups on the basis of their membership requirements or compel them to admit certain students—doing so would distort the group’s freedom of expression by altering the membership policies that directly influence this expression.

This is not to say that groups should be able to exclude members indiscriminately; their membership policies should have some clear connection to their mission. In the case of the Christian Legal Society, it seems reasonable to monitor membership by compelling students to sign a statement asserting their agreement with the society’s beliefs; these beliefs, according to the group’s mission, play an important role in its activities and policies. However, the group should not be permitted to deny membership based on race or ethnicity, as neither of these features factor into its purpose.

At the same time, student organizations must be given broad discretion in determining how their purpose relates to their membership policies. It is the group itself that best knows its mission and the most effective means of achieving it. As a result, CLS should be permitted to exclude homosexuals despite the absence of any reference to homosexuality in its mission statement. Because the group frames itself as one promoting Christian values, and because it believes that homosexuality defies those values, it should be permitted to exclude homosexuals from the club. To paraphrase Voltaire, this does not amount to a defense of the group’s policies (I find them homophobic and excessive), but it does amount to a defense of the group’s right to adopt them. Nor is it a commentary on Christian doctrine or the role of homosexuality in this doctrine, but rather a defense of CLS’s sincere interpretation of Christian values as expressed in its mission statement.

Beyond this, universities have an active interest in promoting plurality among student groups, even if those groups fail to uphold internal standards of plurality with regard to membership policies. Colleges have long represented a place where different organizations, embodying different interests and values, can coexist and collaborate. Students should not have to fear whether their group’s beliefs conflict with those of administrators at their school.

Universities have a right to incentivize certain membership policies, but they should generally give students the benefit of the doubt. Unless they do, they limit the breadth of student groups that can pluralistically exist on college campuses, and they limit the ideas that can come into contact with one another at our nation’s highest institutions of learning.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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