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Trinity Policy Change Renders Promise of Freedom of Association Meaningless

In October 2012, Trinity College’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a measure enforcing strict new regulations on “social organizations,” effectively spelling the end of fraternities and sororities at Trinity. Trinity’s new policies prohibit selective membership in all social organizations and mandate that all existing social organizations achieve rough gender parity in both membership and leadership. Further, they require all social organizations to receive official recognition and approval; students participating in unrecognized social organizations “will be subject to separation from the College.”

As FIRE pointed out in a letter sent to Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr. in March 2013, this change blatantly violates Trinity’s explicit promise of freedom of association in its Student Integrity Contract. Now the college plans on revising the Student Integrity Contract to dictate that students’ freedom of association is subject to whatever limitations Trinity wants to impose.

Sonjay Singh wrote for the student newspaper The Trinity Tripod last week about the college’s single proposed change to its Student Integrity Contract:

The only change to the Student Integrity Contract amends the phrase: “fair grading, protection against improper disclosure, and protection of freedom of association are guaranteed under this contract,” to “fair grading, protection against improper disclosure, and protection of freedom of association are guaranteed under this contract, subject to the regulations and procedures of Trinity College.”

In other words, Trinity will grant students freedom of association when it doesn’t conflict with any other inclinations the college might have. Such a “promise” is insulting, particularly in light of the restrictions on student organizations imposed last October.

Dean of Students Fred Alford told the Tripod, “The change ... makes clear that the guarantees in the integrity contract do not trump College rules. The change is making explicit what was previously implicit.” But Trinity’s previous policy contained no implication that freedom of association might be limited; to the contrary, it emphasized the importance of free expression and other basic rights:

According to the mission statement of Trinity College, excellence in liberal arts education relies on critical thinking, freeing the mind from parochialism and prejudice, and encouraging students to lead examined lives. Free inquiry and free expression are essential for the attainment of these goals. Therefore, we deem it necessary to establish the basic rights and freedoms of the students of Trinity College. Fair grading, protection against improper disclosure, and protection of freedom of association are guaranteed under this contract.

Although Trinity is a private university and thus not bound by the First Amendment, it does have a legal and moral obligation to keep this clear promise to protect free expression.

The Tripod reports that students are speaking out against the proposed change to the Student Integrity Contract—Student Government Association junior class senators Eamon Bousa and Elliott Barron both decried the lack of student input into the policy changes. The Tripod also reports that Bousa has begun a petition calling for implementation of the policy changes to be suspended subject to a vote of the student body. And as FIRE’s Peter Bonilla reported in May, Trinity’s new attitude toward student organizations has been the subject of steady criticism from students and alumni since last October.

FIRE will continue to post updates on the status of the proposed policy change at Trinity.

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