Every student knows that violating school rules may earn them discipline. But at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, violations may also result in the punishment of their fellow students, the groups they belong to, and even students and organizations they’ve never met before and who’ve done nothing wrong. At this public university in Pennsylvania, guilt by association is now the law of the land, threatening students’ First Amendment rights.
In a misguided attempt to address misconduct among its Greek life system, Bloomsburg University President Bashar W. Hanna informed the Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) community in January 2021: “[A]ny future significant violation of Greek specific rules or Code of Conduct violations will result in the cancelation of the entire FSL community at Bloomsburg University.” This letter was sent to more than a dozen groups representing hundreds of students — and at least one of those groups, Hanna concedes, “ha[s] recently operated in a manner that has not violated” any university policies.
It’s egregious that a public university bound by the First Amendment would seek to dismantle an entire constellation of student groups — including organizations not accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever — over the misdeeds of other groups solely because their names share a Greek alphabet. Having a similarity in structure or purpose doesn’t mean that one group has the responsibility — let alone the ability — to control the actions of individuals in another organization. A state college may not punish the College Republicans for the sins of the College Democrats, its gymnastics team for the failings of its football program, or its chess club for the flaws of its debate team.
In FIRE’s March 23 letter to the university, FIRE explains to Hanna that the First Amendment “restricts the ability of the State to impose liability on an individual solely because of his association with another.” For over four decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has decried “guilt by association” as “a philosophy alien to the traditions of a free society and the First Amendment itself.” Bloomsburg can’t walk back decades of law to punish faultless students for the misdoings of others.
Even if Hanna’s actions were not a violation of Bloomsburg students’ fundamental constitutional rights, pledging to cancel student groups complying with the university’s regulations over the actions of other students — members of other groups they cannot control — is no way to deter bad acts, hold students accountable, or treat the vast majority of students who have faithfully complied with school rules. It is a self-executing gambit to give the university the apparent authority to cull social organizations when one of them violates a university regulation.
As stated in FIRE’s letter calling on the university to lift this directive:
By threatening to dismantle the entire Greek life system in this manner, Bloomsburg has made clear that some groups will be penalized only because of their form: Because they are similar to or loosely affiliated with another group by virtue of social connections or similarity in purpose, they can be subject to university punishment.
Fundamental rights to freedom of association cannot be burdened in this fashion.
If Bloomsburg truly wants to better its Greek life system, it may want to consider punishing the students and groups that have actually broken university rules. For whatever ails its fraternities and sororities, punishing the innocent cannot be the cure.