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FIRE reminds Penn State that student groups have a right to determine their membership

A political student group moved to expel one of its members. Then an administrator tried to step in.
Sign on Penn State University campus

Ken Wolter /

A recent incident at Pennsylvania State University demonstrates why public universities must respect student groups’ First Amendment’s right to freedom of association. While the situation came to a favorable conclusion prior to FIRE’s involvement, we still wrote Penn State to underscore why associational freedoms are integral to students’ expressive rights. 

At Penn State, the College Independents, a student group that gathers to “discuss current events in government and politics with a wide variety of viewpoints,” attempted to remove one of its members for disruptive behavior at group events and meetings, as well as in an organization group chat where the member sent repeated, unsolicited messages over the course of several months. But an administrator told the group it “cannot hold a student accountable to behaviors that are not connected to the organization.” 

Fortunately, the administrator later appeared to reverse course in this specific situation and allowed the group to discipline the member. But the administrator should not have gotten involved in the first place. 

The First Amendment binds Penn State to uphold student rights to an array of expressive freedoms. Among these is the freedom of association, which has for centuries lied at the heart of the American system of government and individual rights.

We wrote Penn State last week to remind it that associational rights are fundamental to the First Amendment. As a public university, Penn State must allow its student groups to make their own decisions regarding their membership.

As we told the university:

As you have recently articulated so well, the First Amendment binds Penn State to uphold student rights to an array of expressive freedoms. Among these is the freedom of association, which has for centuries lied at the heart of the American system of government and individual rights. This core freedom extends to students enrolled in public universities, protecting the “right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.” The right of expressive association is a natural complement to freedom of expression because the right to speak, as the Supreme Court has observed, is “often exercised most effectively by combining one’s voice with the voices of others.” As the College Independents members’ interests in associational freedoms are strong, Penn State would overstep its bounds and burden the group’s associational rights if it restricted its ability to expel or discipline members, especially for conduct that occurs outside of group activities.

Beyond principles of free association, student organizations must be able to control their own membership for a practical reason: Group leaders cannot be effective if they contradict the group’s tenets outside of group-sanctioned activities, just as group members who contradict a group’s mission outside of group activities would undermine the group. 

Student groups must also be able to address disruptive behavior, both inside and outside the group’s activities, to ensure their organizations can function without need to appeal to administrators for approval.

The interest student groups hold in their associational rights is strong and, as our letter explains, the First Amendment provides considerable deference to organizations to “control” their expressive activity, regardless of whether those decisions are “fair or unfair.”

We also commend President Bendapudi for recommitting to protecting free expression on campus in the wake of the cancellation of an on-campus event headlined by a founder of the Proud Boys in the fall of 2022. We’re hopeful that the incident with the College Independents can be another learning moment for the university to ensure that it respects student groups’ associational rights to prevent similar administrative intrusions in the future.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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