This Month in FIRE History: FIRE Secures the Rights of Penn State Student Group

By on March 15, 2012

Eleven years ago this month, FIRE secured an important victory for freedom of association at Pennsylvania State University (PSU).

The case first began in December 2000, when PSU’s undergraduate Student Government Supreme Court informed the school’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) that the words of its constitution and mission statement (which had been adopted by the national organization in 1960), identifying rights as "God-given," constituted religious "discrimination," because the words reflected a "devotion to god." Despite appeals from the YAF chapter, PSU’s Student Government Supreme Court upheld their decision and called on the chapter to remove the words. After taking the issue to the Appeals Board, the students were told that if the chapter’s constitution was not revised, the organization would lose official recognition on campus-effectively, a death sentence for the group.

After YAF contacted FIRE, we wrote to then-PSU President Graham Spanier, reminding him of the school’s responsibility to uphold freedom of association on campus. Spanier immediately undertook a review of the case, and subsequently called on the Appeals Board to reverse its decision.

Sean Clark, who was Vice Chairman of the YAF chapter during the controversy and now serves as FIRE’s Director of Finance and Operations, later went on to narrate his experiences in a video for FIRE.

Unfortunately, not all student rights cases are as easily and quickly resolved. In the years since, FIRE has seen countless other threats to freedom of association on campus and, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, those threats have grown even more serious. In light of this, FIRE will continue to fight to protect the rights of all individuals on campus to organize around their beliefs.

Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park Cases: Pennsylvania State University: Charges of ‘Discrimination’ Due to Religious Language in Club Constitution