George Will Castigates Vanderbilt for Discrimination Against Belief-Based Student Groups

By November 3, 2011

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, writing in The Washington Post, takes Vanderbilt University to task for its new policy prohibiting certain student organizations from instituting belief-based requirements that their members or officers affirm the official values of the group. FIRE has been actively working to turn back this violation of student groups’ right to freedom of association, as have 23 members of Congress. Most recently, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley wrote about the matter in The Daily Caller. (Will’s column also points readers to this Torch piece on the case that Robert wrote in September.)
Will reminds us of the Supreme Court’s previous wisdom on freedom of association-which was then contradicted by the Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez:

In wiser moments, the court has held that “this freedom to gather in association . . . necessarily presupposes the freedom to identify the people who constitute the association and to limit the association to those people only.” In 1984, William Brennan, the court’s leading liberal of the last half-century, said:

“There can be no clearer example of an intrusion into the internal structure or affairs of an association than a regulation that forces the group to accept members it does not desire. Such a regulation may impair the ability of the original members to express only those views that brought them together. Freedom of association therefore plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.”

Will aptly summarizes Vanderbilt’s position: “To ensure ‘diversity of thought and opinion’ [Vanderbilt] require[s] certain student groups, including five religious ones, to conform to the university’s policy that forbids the groups from protecting their characteristics that contribute to diversity.” This argument is, to recycle a term Will used in his book on baseball, Men at Work, piffle. The more accurate question, Will argues, is whether Vanderbilt believes that organizations with unpopular positions should be allowed entry into the marketplace of ideas at all:

The question, at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, should not be whether a particular viewpoint is right but whether an expressive association has a right to espouse it. Unfortunately, in the name of tolerance, what is tolerable is being defined ever more narrowly.

If universities like Vanderbilt continue down this road (who knows what they’ll next find unacceptable for student groups to believe?), they’re likely to wind up with a bland campus community without any meaningful diversity of beliefs. Yesterday’s tolerance of opposing views will be supplanted by tomorrow’s intolerance, administered by those who would allow student groups to exist only if they hold certain approved viewpoints. This irony is lost on many, but not on Will, who concludes, “Such compulsory conformity is, of course, enforced in the name of diversity.” The fact is that you can’t have pluralism without allowing some fundamental differences.

I encourage readers to read Will’s column at The Washington Post and to learn more about the fight for freedom of association at Vanderbilt here.

Schools: Vanderbilt University Cases: Nationwide: “All-comers” Policies Jeopardize Free Association Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs