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Private Universities and the Conflict Between Mission and Speech

Madeline Gootman is a FIRE summer intern.

When private universities send out their shiny pamphlets to high school seniors, they highlight their commitment to all things politically correct and otherwise acceptable in academia. However, these commitments to civility, respect, and social comfort are often at odds with the broad promises of free speech that universities make to their incoming students. Unfortunately for students, too many private universities want to have it both ways, promising students the right to free speech and then violating that right when someone’s speech proves too unpopular or controversial.

Vanderbilt University’s packet for recently admitted students (PDF) (which, awkwardly, bears my face) proudly displays a quote from a rising senior within its pages that exclaims:

Your college experience is what you make of it. No matter how big your ambitions are, how far you are willing to go, how high you want to climb, nobody will ever tell you that what you want to do is impossible; here, the impossible is expected.

For me personally, this statement has been accurate; all of my liberal, pro-choice, gay-friendly plans for college were fulfilled. However, my experience at Vanderbilt is not the only one that matters or deserves validation. With respect to my friends at Vanderbilt who practice Christianity, they have found that their supposedly endless possibilities ended at participating in national religious organizations such as the Fellowship for Christian Athletes or Christian fraternities and sororities because of those organizations’ stances on sexual morality. When choosing to attend Vanderbilt, my friends never thought that the university would compromise their ability to freely associate by impeding their ability to follow their religious beliefs on campus. They chose a prestigious university committed to civility and respect but also a university that supposedly offers the chance to engage with others around shared beliefs.

When I began my education at Vanderbilt, all of the first-years were educated on Vanderbilt’s Community Creed, a document that sets forth seven values of particular importance to the university community. The Road to Vanderbilt packet (PDF) declares: “We pledge to foster the values set forth in the Vanderbilt community creed and confront behaviors that threaten the spirit of our community.” While this sounded very nice and positive to me at the time, I did not yet recognize the conflict between the university’s requirement that students “pledge to foster” civility and the various promises that admissions pamphlets made to high school seniors.

Amidst allegations of discrimination against gay students by religious groups on campus (several groups required officers to agree with the group’s core religious views, including a belief in conservative standards of sexual morality), Vanderbilt adopted an “all-comers” policy with regard to beliefs, requiring recognized student groups to accept all students as members and potential leaders whether or not they agreed with the group. However, this new policy ultimately backfired upon the university. Instead of highlighting a commitment to eliminate discrimination on campus by simply upholding existing discrimination policy, Vanderbilt violated its own community creed’s promise of honesty by banning belief-based requirements for group association. This violated the promises of the rights of citizens that Vanderbilt promised to uphold. This also ignored Vanderbilt’s commitment to discovery, defined as “the exploration of the wonders of self in relation to a larger world ... the opportunity to take risks, challenge assumptions, and understand disparate experiences at Vanderbilt and beyond.” As a liberal undergraduate at Vanderbilt, I appreciated the university’s dedication to creating a welcoming environment for gay and lesbian students. However, the university didn’t have to violate its commitment to free association in order to do so.

Vanderbilt is far from the only private university to ignore its promises of free speech and free association when they became inconvenient. Georgetown University, a prominent Catholic institution, has consistently denied recognition to its H*yas for Choice student group (Georgetown will not let the group use the word “Hoyas” in its name) despite the university’s promise to students of “the right to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns and to engage in the robust expression of ideas.” Georgetown justifies its resistance to H*yas for Choice by citing the Catholic mission of the university; however, my understanding is that another important Catholic value (and societal value generally) is honesty. When Georgetown promises students all of the rights of citizens, it can’t be considered morally right to selectively break that promise to avoid uncomfortable debates. How can Georgetown defend its exclusion of H*yas for Choice with a straight face?

In a similar situation at Johns Hopkins University, administrators recognized the conflict between their attempted enforcement of community values and their promises of academic freedom when the student government attempted to use harassment policies as a justification to refuse funding to a pro-life organization on campus. The potential “offense” that some members of the Johns Hopkins and local community might experience if the group was recognized was cited as the reason for denying the student group official recognition. After FIRE’s intervention, the pro-life group was given full student group status.

Private universities themselves have a right to free association that allows them to organize around a set of beliefs, even if those beliefs require restrictions on speech. (Unlike public universities, private universities are not legally bound by the First Amendment.) And as evidenced by the many who choose to attend institutions that prize certain beliefs and values above freedom of expression (such as some religious schools), students are capable of knowingly entering into limited realms of academia. However, these students generally attend these universities with the understanding that they will be entering universities that do not permit certain types of expression. For example, Pepperdine University in California requires all persons associated with the school to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ as real and true. In contrast, students who attend private universities that make robust declarations of free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of association are entering into an agreement with their university that is partially induced by the belief that they are not sacrificing any of their rights in order to obtain an education from that university. When private universities ignore these promises, they violate the trust that students place in their administration and their school.

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