Victory for Freedom of Association for University of Arizona Pro-Life Group

By April 21, 2010

In today’s press release, FIRE announces that the University of Arizona has reversed course and granted its Students for Life (SFL) group official recognition, which gives the group equal access to university resources. After SFL’s application was initially denied by UA’s student government because the group’s proposed constitution required that members share the group’s beliefs about the sanctity of human life, SFL founder and UA student Jeremiah Lange came to FIRE for help.

Interestingly, the situation presented by this case is a close relative to that confronted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which was argued before the Justices on Monday. FIRE filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case asking the court to protect students’ freedom of association.

Like that of many universities, UA’s application procedure for new student groups requires submission of a proposed constitution and a nondiscrimination statement. Lange submitted an application for SFL that satisfied the written guidelines of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona (ASUA), the student government. SFL also included a requirement that "member[s] must agree to stand by the princip[le]s that life is sacred and that the intentional killing of human beings through abortion, euthanasia, and murder, and all forms of eugenics are morally reprehensible." The application was denied in a February 25, 2010, e-mail to Lange in which ASUA Club and Organization Standards Board Director Jarrett Benkendorfer informed Lange that "organizations cannot require participants to fulfill or abide by specific principles." Benkendorfer informed Lange that the belief-based requirement was "unnecessary" because "students holding shared views with your club will be attracted to your organization." 

In a March 15 letter to UA President Robert N. Shelton, FIRE pointed out that no ASUA regulations specified that student groups were prohibited from requiring voting members to share the group’s organizing beliefs, contrary to what Benkendorfer had alleged. Further, FIRE informed Shelton that preventing Lange and SFL from making belief-based membership choices was a denial of the group’s First Amendment right to freedom of association. As the Supreme Court made clear in Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984), "freedom of association plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate." FIRE expressed doubt that recognized student groups including the College Republicans, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students Organized for Animal Rights, Voices of Opposition, Liberty in North Korea, Young Democrats, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán were aware that they were unable to require members to share their central beliefs.

In a March 29 response, Arizona Student Unions Executive Director Bill Shiba avoided answering FIRE’s constitutional concerns, but asked Lange to reapply. On April 1, FIRE again wrote President Shelton, noting the inadequacy of Shiba’s reply and asking that Shelton "personally ensure that ASUA respects the constitutional right of UA students to assemble with others around shared beliefs." In a reply  of April 14, Shiba informed FIRE that SFL’s application had been accepted.

If the Supreme Court rules against a similarly situated student group in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the ability of belief-based groups to exist and maintain their expressive identity on campuses around the country will be in jeopardy. Thanks to FIRE, though, this isn’t currently a problem for UA’s Students for Life. It is ridiculous for a pro-life group to be forced to admit voting members or leaders who are pro-choice (and vice versa), and we are confident the Supreme Court will continue to agree with FIRE on this issue.

Schools: University of Arizona Cases: University of Arizona: Pro-Life Group Denied Recognition Over Belief Requirement