The liberties of groups

The liberties of groups March 22, 2012

We have blogged about universities banning Christian groups unless they are willing to accept non-Christian members and leaders.  The Supreme Court has just refused to hear a case questioning this practice.  See Supreme Court declines religious liberty case.

Meanwhile, Michael Stokes Paulsen, while blasting Vanderbilt University for doing this, goes on to argue that Vanderbilt has the right to do so, the same right that protects Christian colleges:

Groups, as well as individuals, possess the “freedom of speech.” Just as individuals get to control the content of their own expression, groups of individuals, joining their voices together in some common association, have the right to control their collective message. Thus, a vital principle of the First Amendment as it applies to private groups, associations, and institutions—including private universities—is that such groups have nearly absolute freedom to create and maintain their own distinctive group expressive identities: to decide what they stand for and what views they will express.

This is the freedom that supports the right of private religious colleges to maintain their distinctive religious identities. And the same freedom equally supports the right of Vanderbilt University to maintain a distinctive anti-religious identity. In each case, the institution may embrace the principles that define it as a group and exclude or suppress messages at odds with the values for which the institution wishes to stand. . . .

Vanderbilt has a history of excluding groups that express messages antithetical to the one it wants to convey. Well into the 1960s it was a racially segregated institution that excluded blacks from its undergraduate and most graduate programs. In 1960, the university expelled a black Divinity School student, James Lawson, for his participation in peaceful sit-in protests of lunch-counter segregation in the Nashville community. It is perhaps in (unthinking) hypersensitivity to its racist past that Vanderbilt has adopted a policy of forbidding campus religious groups to exclude members on the basis of religious belief. Ironically, in so doing Vanderbilt has done just what it did in an earlier era: expel the expression of views of which it disapproves.

One may disagree with Vanderbilt’s principles of exclusion, now as then. I certainly do: the idea that Christian groups should be excluded for being Christian is downright ludicrous—an Orwellian perversion of Vanderbilt’s stated commitment to diversity. In its own way, it is as unbelievable as excluding James Lawson for his commitment to racial justice.

Freedom sometimes protects one’s ability to do wrong. It is Vanderbilt’s First Amendment right to exclude the groups and messages it wants excluded from its campus and its community. . . .

There is a further, bitter irony in all this. The reason why Vanderbilt may discriminate against religion is precisely the same principle of freedom that Vanderbilt denies to religious groups on its campus—the freedom to form its own expressive identity. Vanderbilt purports to be liberal and tolerant of different views. But its university officials do not appear to understand what this means. They think the university is being open-minded by requiring student groups, including religious groups, to conform to university officials’ view of orthodoxy. This is not so much hypocritical or cynical (though it may be that as well) as simply embarrassingly ignorant. Vanderbilt does not appear even to recognize that its actions are intolerant. It thinks it is protecting its community from improper influences, just as it once thought that segregation protected its community.

HT:  Matthew Schmitz


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