MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich., April 3, 2007—In an important victory for free association, Central Michigan University (CMU) has revised a policy that banned ideological and political groups from “discriminating” on the basis of “political persuasion.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) urged CMU to change this policy after students who disagreed with the mission of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) student organization attempted to become members of the group in order to destroy it from the inside.
“Central Michigan University should be commended for quickly fixing its constitutionally unsound ‘anti-discrimination’ policy,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Freedom of association means little if you cannot deny membership to people who do not share the core beliefs of the group. A conservative political student group should be allowed to ‘discriminate’ in its membership on the basis of political beliefs, just as liberal, objectivist, anarchist, or Whig party groups should be allowed to exclude members who don’t agree with their ideologies.”
YAF is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) at CMU described in its constitution as “a conservative non-partisan, non-sectarian voluntary educational organization.” Following an attempt by the CMU student government to derecognize YAF last February, YAF members report that students from various liberal student groups began attending and disrupting YAF meetings. On February 13, 2007, some students created a Facebook.com group entitled “People who believe the Young Americans for Freedom is a Hate Group,” where members posted messages suggesting ways to get YAF expelled from CMU. One post encouraged members of the Facebook group to attend YAF meetings, vote students opposing YAF’s mission into board positions, and thereby force YAF’s dissolution.
After learning of these proposed attempts to drive the group off campus, YAF President Dennis Lennox II e-mailed Assistant Director of Student Life Thomas H. Idema, Jr., on February 20 to inquire whether YAF could deny membership to individuals who publicly disagreed with YAF’s purpose. Idema responded in an e-mail by quoting from the non-discrimination clause of the RSO Manual, which states that “[a]n RSO may not discriminate in its membership criteria or leadership criteria on the basis of…political persuasion….” Idema further explained to Lennox that YAF could “not require members to be ‘like-minded’ as that opens [the group] up to discrimination based on political persuasion.”
Lennox contacted FIRE, which wrote to CMU President Michael Rao on March 16 reminding him that denying political or ideological student groups the right to associate with students who share the group’s beliefs violates the freedom of association afforded to all CMU students. FIRE explained that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this exact situation in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), when it held that “forced inclusion of an unwanted person in a group infringes the group’s freedom of expressive association if the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.” FIRE also pointed out that CMU allows religious student groups to choose their membership based on shared beliefs, resulting in an inconsistency regarding the policy for secular student groups.
On March 27, CMU President Michael Rao informed FIRE that CMU would implement a new policy extending the rules in place for religious student groups to all belief-based student groups. The change was announced to all presidents of registered student groups in an e-mail from the Office of Student Life on March 28. The policy will supposedly be in place by the start of the next academic year.
“Going forward, members of any belief-based student organization at CMU can rest assured that outside opponents will not be able to overtake and undermine their group,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “FIRE is deeply heartened that CMU has recognized its legal and moral duty to uphold the full extent of students’ right to freedom of association.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Rao, President, Central Michigan University: 989-774-3131; email@example.com
Thomas Idema, Jr., Director of Student Life, Central Michigan University: 989-774-3016; firstname.lastname@example.org