Central Michigan University Grants Students Full Freedom of Association

By on April 3, 2007

In today’s press release, FIRE announced that Central Michigan University (CMU) has agreed to revise an “anti-discrimination” policy it had applied to all registered student organizations. CMU’s policy stated that groups could not deny membership to students on the basis of a host of categories, including “political persuasion.” Under that policy, any ideological or political group on campus, including Young Americans for Freedom (YAF—the affected group in this case), Students Against Discrimination, and the Gay/Straight Alliance would have to admit members hostile to the group’s mission.
 
FIRE has often opposed universities’ application of anti-discrimination policies that include “belief” as a blanket protected category, since ideological, political, and religious organizations should have the right to associate only with other students who share their beliefs. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) is the leading Supreme Court case supporting this position. We usually make these arguments on behalf of religious student organizations, such as the Christian group Princeton Faith and Action, LSU’s Muslim Students Association, or the Christian Law Students’ Association at Pace Law School, all of which were told by their respective administrations that they could not limit membership to students who shared their beliefs.
 
Interestingly, CMU seemed to at least partially appreciate the necessity of allowing groups to require members to have shared beliefs, because its Registered Student Organization Manual allows religious organizations to “use religious beliefs as a criterion for selection of membership or leadership.” CMU’s restrictions on limiting group membership based on belief therefore applied only to secular ideological groups—a distinction with no basis in law or logic.
 
The “horror scenario” FIRE sometimes posits is that if an ideologically-based group were forced to admit members who did not agree with the group’s mission, those members could feasibly undermine the group from the inside. At CMU, this possibility became reality when students started attending and disrupting meetings of the conservative YAF group and even started a Facebook.com group for “People who believe the Young Americans for Freedom is a Hate Group.” One student posted on that group’s wall:
The best way to get rid of them, is for everyone in this group to go to their meetings and we all vote eachother [sic] on to the eboard [sic] and dissolve the group.
Another thing we can do is make it public that we intend to bring in a ton of people and watch them change their membership requirements which might make them slip up and break a cmu [sic] discrimination policy.
CMU reacted to concerns from YAF President Dennis Lennox II about the group’s impending demise by upholding the non-discrimination policy. CMU’s Director of Student Life wrote in an e-mail to Lennox that YAF could “not require members to be ‘like-minded’ as that opens [the group] up to discrimination based on political persuasion.”
 
YAF appealed to FIRE, and we wrote to CMU President Michael Rao on March 16 to inform him that CMU’s policy was unconstitutional, that it contradicted the Court’s decision in Boy Scouts v. Dale, and that it placed YAF in danger of being deliberately undermined by students who wished to banish the group from campus.
 
To FIRE’s delight, President Rao responded by vowing to change the policy in question. Within days, CMU issued an e-mail to all registered student organizations explaining the revision to the anti-discrimination policy. That e-mail stated:
[FIRE’s] inquiry prompted a review of CMU’s policy and general counsel has advised that the legal principle in question is “freedom of association,” which has been protected by the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, in several cases. Like most universities, CMU will not oppose established principles as promulgated by the highest courts.
CMU has developed a new policy, which states that “[a] belief-based registered student organization may use its belief system as a criterion for selection of membership or leadership.” President Rao assures FIRE that this policy will be fully implemented by the beginning of the Fall 2007 semester.