PHILADELPHIA—A student group at Penn State University (PSU) won a momentous victory when the University reversed a ruling of the student government that had stripped the group’s constitution and mission statement of words found to be “discriminatory.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) urgently brought the case to the attention of Penn State’s President Graham Spanier, who immediately instructed a student-faculty oversight committee to revisit the case in the light of their obligation to protect freedom of speech and association at PSU.
In December 2000, the undergraduate Student Government Supreme Court informed PSU’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) that the words of its constitution and mission statement, identifying rights as “God- given,” constituted religious “discrimination,” because the words reflected a “devotion to god.” In January 2001, the same Supreme Court upheld its decision and “struck” the offending statements from the YAF constitution. YAF appealed again, this time to a student-faculty Appeals Board, which unanimously denied YAF the right to be recognized as a student organization if it kept its “religious” language.
YAF is organized around a commitment to the “Sharon Statement,” drafted in 1960 at the Sharon, Connecticut home of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., a founder of the national YAF. Committing itself to individual liberty, limited government, and the Constitution of the United States, the Sharon Statement stresses the individual exercise of “God-given free will, whence derives the right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” It was the Sharon Statement that was deemed “discriminatory” by the student Supreme Court and the student-faculty Appeals Board.
YAF contacted FIRE and asked for its assistance. FIRE wrote to PSU President Graham Spanier. Reminding Spanier of his vigorous defense of the First Amendment and of academic freedom in other cases, FIRE’s president, Alan Charles Kors, called upon him to act consistently: “Given your defense of speech that others have found blasphemous, we find it inconceivable that you will not act with equal vigor to protect speech that some find religious.”
FIRE appealed to fundamental principles of the First Amendment concerning free speech, the free exercise of religion, and freedom of association. FIRE pointed out that “it violates the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment for PSU officially to elevate non-belief over belief, to the extent that believers are prohibited from organizing themselves into a group aimed at promoting their religious views.” Kors observed: “It is PSU, through the tribunal to which it has delegated its authority, that has demonstrated an unconstitutional intolerance of religious students.”
President Spanier, who recently has come under criticism for rightfully defending the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian student organizations at PSU, immediately agreed to review the case. Spanier wrote to Kors that “upon reviewing information provided by our Office of Student Affairs, I must agree with your assessment: The Young Americans for Freedom should be granted registration as a student organization.” He instructed the student Supreme Court and the student-faculty Appeals Board about the principles informing PSU’s constitutional obligations. On March 12, the Appeals Board unanimously reversed its earlier unanimous decision to censor YAF and strip it of its official recognition. FIRE is confident that this decision is now final.
Sean Clark, the Vice Chairman of PSU’s YAF chapter, expressed “our gratitude to President Graham Spanier for ensuring that the University honors the Bill of Rights.” He noted: “We are especially grateful to FIRE for swiftly taking action to remind Penn State of its constitutional obligations. It makes an enormous difference for students that FIRE is there as a watchdog for individual rights, making sure that freedom of speech and association applies to all students equally.”
Kors said: “The facts and outcome of this case reveal both how routine selective oppression has become on our campuses and how much that situation can be changed when individuals have the courage to defend their rights and liberties. This should help dispel the fatalism that is the greatest ally of the current tyrannies.” Kors also praised President Spanier for his consistency in defense of basic constitutional liberties. “It is heartening these days to find a college president who defends the same principles of free speech and free association against those who would extend such principles only to those with whom they agree. FIRE is committed to an academic world in which free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and due process are rights independent of the politics and ideologies of the groups involved. It is very heartening when such an issue can be decided on behalf of liberty by a university itself, without recourse to the courts.”
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE:
(215) 717-3473; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean Clark, Penn State Young Americans for Freedom:
Bill Mahon, Office of the President of Penn State University:
(814) 865-7517; email: email@example.com