According to the Mustang Daily, California Polytechnic State University’s (Cal Poly’s) student newspaper, the Cal Poly College Republicans are petitioning against a policy in effect across the California State University (CSU) system that requires student organizations to open membership to all enrolled students. (Fraternities and sororities may remain open only to one sex.)
Members of the College Republicans point out that, because they are forced to admit non-Republican students as members, their group’s message will be diluted and their activities interrupted by those who disagree with their core beliefs. Along with circulating the petition and constructing a “free speech wall” this week, the group took further action to advocate for their rights by hosting FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn, who addressed the school Monday night. Joe’s speech was co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts.
The imposition of misguided “all comers” policies that negatively affect belief-based organizations is precisely the result that FIRE and other free speech advocates warned about after the Supreme Court’s ruling (PDF) in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010).
In Martinez, the Court ruled that the University of California Hastings College of the Law did not violate the Christian Legal Society student group’s First Amendment rights by denying it official recognition. The Christian Legal Society required leaders and voting members of the group to sign a statement making clear that they agreed with the group’s religious beliefs. But Hastings claimed that this requirement conflicted with the school’s all comers policy—the same kind of policy now in place at CSU schools like Cal Poly.
Under Hastings’ all comers policy (as considered by the Supreme Court), every group at the school must accept every student as a member with no exceptions. Even groups organized for the specific purpose of advancing a particular set of beliefs and values—like CLS—were forced to allow students with different beliefs and values (even those in direct opposition) to participate in group decision-making. FIRE believes that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision in Martinez.
Cal Poly College Republicans President Nate Honeycutt rightly points out that all comers policies like Hastings’ and CSU’s “defeat the purpose of a club.” He explained:
We would welcome any student to come to our meetings and hear what we’re about … [but a]n open membership requirement makes it so that other people can spy on, take over or dilute the messages of rival groups. We don’t want to keep people out. We just want to restrict membership so we can protect the purpose of our group.
And the threat to student groups isn’t hypothetical. Honeycutt told the Mustang Daily last month that “[a]bout 10 years ago, a group of students opposed to the College Republicans’ viewpoints joined the club and created a liberal voting bloc, which negated the conservative values of other members.”
CSU’s policy yields strange results when applied to other groups, as well. For example, an honor society may no longer restrict membership to students who earn certain grades. It’s unclear under such circumstances what the point of an honor society would be.
FIRE commends the Cal Poly College Republicans for bringing attention to the threat CSU’s policy, and others like it, poses to belief-based groups on campus and advocating for change. Because CLS v. Martinez merely allows all comers policies (and does not mandate them), institutions of higher education and state legislatures may still choose the more common route of protecting the right of belief-based groups to make belief-based decisions. In March, for example, Virginia passed the Student Group Protection Act, which protects the right of religious and ideological belief-based student organizations to choose leaders who share those beliefs.
If you are a student who is unhappy with restrictive policies like CSU’s, then like the Cal Poly College Republicans, you can work to do something about it! The first step is to check out your school’s speech codes on Spotlight, FIRE’s online policy database. Then, learn more about your rights with a free downloadable copy of FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. You can also attend FIRE’s annual conference or one of FIRE’s monthly webinars where you’ll learn about a different topic related to your rights each month and have the opportunity to interact with FIRE staff in the webinar Q&A. Next, lead the free speech movement on campus! You can create a free speech wall or campaign for free expression by tabling, pamphleting, or petitioning. You can also write an op-ed in your school newspaper, send a letter to your schools’ administrators, or invite a speaker from FIRE.
When it comes to engaging in campus activism for student rights, FIRE is always ready to help. Contact us to let us know what you are doing on campus and how we can assist you!
Image: Student group discussion at FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network Conference