Law Professor Explores Freedom of Association Controversy at Vanderbilt

By March 20, 2012

In an article for the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse last week, University of St. Thomas law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen addresses Vanderbilt University’s controversial decision to institute an "all-comers" policy for student organizations on campus. As Paulsen explains, the policy forbids students groups from "impos[ing] faith-based or belief-based requirements for membership or leadership."

In his piece, Paulsen explores what he calls the "irony" of the constitutional principles and court decisions relating to freedom of expressive association, noting that the same freedom that protects the rights of individuals to form organizations based on shared beliefs also guards Vanderbilt’s ability as a private university to dictate the values and principles of the school.

In doing so, Paulsen’s piece does an excellent job of analyzing the complexities behind the battle over freedom of association on campus. Most importantly, he highlights the current and potential consequences of these complexities-consequences that FIRE continues to emphasize as part of our effort to combat Vanderbilt’s decision. For example, he writes:

[I]f Vanderbilt is truly committed to freedom and diversity—if that is the expressive identity it desires—it should embrace the same principle for its student groups: campus religious groups should be permitted to be who they want to be. And that means respecting the rights of campus Christian student groups to be Christian and to maintain a Christian identity … [emphasis added].

Read the whole piece 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