Emory Gives Up on Freedom of Association

By January 29, 2008

Earlier this month, Emory University students received notice by e-mail of a new policy that greatly restricts their freedom of association and, indeed, their freedom of speech. Jonathan Zerulik, Interim Assistant Dean and Director of Student Conduct, announced that the Undergraduate Code of Conduct "now prohibits leadership of or membership in a student organization whose recognition has been withdrawn by the University, such as banned or suspended fraternities." He instructed those with questions or comments to contact him at student_conduct@learnlink.emory.edu.

According to the Emory Wheel,

Under the revision, effective Jan. 1, "joining, administering, representing, paying dues to, residing in housing affiliated with or claiming membership in a banned student organization" is considered a violation of the conduct code.

The change to the code could have a serious impact on APES and Emory’s former chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, two unrecognized fraternities that have maintained a presence on campus … Zerulik said the division knows some of the students who lead banned organizations and is discussing charging them…

Members of APES declined to comment on the record, fearing that associating with a banned organization would jeopardize their academic careers. They said the University’s policies make it difficult for them to defend what they see as their freedom of association…

Concerns with freedom of assembly have come up in the process of revising the code, Zerulik said, but constitutional guarantees hold less weight at a private institution like Emory. The University must balance concerns about constitutional guarantees with other competing concerns.

Last week’s staff editorial of the Wheel also reports that

Emory seems to think that the root of the problem lies with the name "APES." We may not be experts, but we’re guessing that the problems are with the people who join the group, not with a four-letter word for a primate. To ban T-shirts with those four letters on them or to prevent them for signing their name to an intramural sport team (they simply signed up as "gorillas" and "primates" instead) is practically Orwellian. The removal of APES from the plaque displaying the names of champion intramural teams is likewise childish and largely ineffective.

The Wheel editorial pretty much gets it right:

[F]or a progressive, open-minded institution like the University to remove the freedom of association in such a manner seems to run counter to its ideology. The conduct code revisions brush dangerously close to a system of collective punishment that abridges students’ free speech.

Prospective students who are admitted to Emory this year should remember: Emory is a private institution. Despite any expectations you may have that this is a free institution, the truth is that it is not. At any moment, Emory can change the rules to restrict your freedom of association and even your freedom of speech. But unlike most other private institutions, Emory recently has done so, and Emory might do it again.