This Month in FIRE History: Victory for Freedom of Association at Central Michigan University

By April 18, 2011

In April 2007, FIRE won an important victory when Central Michigan University (CMU) reversed a policy banning ideological and political groups from “discriminating” on the basis of “political persuasion.” The case holds important lessons for freedom of association on campus that remain particularly relevant in light of last year’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.

The controversy at CMU began with a student effort to derecognize the school’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) because of the group’s unpopular views. When this effort failed, students began to disrupt YAF meetings and created a Facebook group dedicated to formulating ideas for dismantling the YAF chapter. Upon seeing a post advocating that members of the Facebook group attend YAF meetings, vote students opposing YAF’s mission into board positions, and thereby force YAF’s dissolution, YAF President Dennis Lennox II approached the CMU administration to determine whether the group could deny membership to students who did not believe in the group’s mission. Assistant Director of Student Life Thomas H. Idema, Jr. informed Lennox that doing so would violate the school’s non-discrimination clause, which stated that a group “may not discriminate in its membership criteria or leadership criteria on the basis of … political persuasion….”

Lennox reached out to FIRE, and we contacted the school to remind CMU of its constitutional obligation to uphold freedom of association rights. Soon after, CMU President Michael Rao announced that the school would revise the policy.

This victory is usefully illustrative for many reasons, including the ease with which CMU acted in restoring student rights and revising its policy. Perhaps more importantly, the case serves as a key example of how disregard for freedom of association can threaten a group’s very existence and right to expression on campus. Without protections for their freedom of association, YAF was exposed to an effort to destroy their group from withinan effort that would have ultimately robbed them of the ability to express their beliefs.

Unfortunately, last year’s Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinezexposes religious, political, and other ideologically motivated groups to this same threat by undermining their right (in certain narrow situations) to organize and structure their membership around their expressive purposes. In light of the decision, FIRE remains as vigilant as ever in fighting for the freedom of association on campus. Just as FIRE helped secure victory for the YAF students at CMU, we will continue to fight to ensure that faulty policies and the new legal landscape under Christian Legal Society v. Martinez don’t become an excuse for institutions, administrators, and students to manipulate the rules and silence unpopular groups.

Schools: University of California Central Michigan University Cases: University of California Hastings College of the Law: Denial of Recognition to Christian Law School Group Central Michigan University: Student Group’s Freedom of Association Under Attack