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University of Rochester student government cracks down on single-gender organizations, gendered language

Members of single-gender organizations are facing a potential loss of privileges after the University of Rochester’s student government declared their membership practices “discriminatory.” The ruling from the judicial branch of the Students’ Association Government removes support for single-gender organizations on campus — including sports clubs, a cappella groups, and Greek organizations — and seriously restricts freedom of association on campus. The council even ruled that co-ed groups are to be sanctioned if they do not stop using “gendered language” in their name, bylaws, and promotional materials.

In January, a group of students petitioned the Senate of the Students’ Association to sanction 55 student groups — one fifth of the over 250 student organizations listed in the handbook. Affected groups include Greek organizations, sports teams, and a cappella groups. The petitioners argued that these organizations, due to their single-gender membership and use of gendered language in their bylaws and promotional materials, are discriminatory in violation of the Students’ Association Constitution. The relevant portion reads:

Section 2. Neither the Students’ Association nor any affiliated organization may discriminate against any person because of age, color, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status, or political affiliation.

The Senate did not grant the petition, and the petitioners then appealed it to the All-Campus Judicial Council, which issued its decision on May 5. The council decided that any organization that receives benefits from the Students’ Association — whether it is funding of sports clubs or a cappella groups, or subsidized room reservations for Greek organizations — is subject to the policy and can be sanctioned for violating it, thereby losing the aforementioned funding and benefits typically offered by the university. As we argued with regard to a similar policy at Harvard, prohibiting student organizations from the freedom to select their own membership infringes upon their basic freedom of association rights.

This policy, however, is far broader than that at Harvard. Whereas Harvard’s policy is limited to unrecognized social organizations, including only sororities, fraternities, and final clubs, the Rochester ruling includes sports clubs and a cappella groups, barring them from competing in single-gender competitions.

This dramatically reduces the opportunities available to Rochester students. For example, some of the sports clubs will inevitably have to disband under this policy, because co-ed sports leagues simply do not exist for all club sports. Unless there’s a league already available, newly co-ed teams will be left to try to create their own leagues or have nobody to compete with. Even if a co-ed league does exist, most players on combined co-ed teams will see reduced playing time, and if the combined team hits the roster caps, players will need to be cut.

Taken to its logical conclusion, applying the Students’ Association Constitution’s anti-discrimination provision this rigidly would also mean that a College Democrats chapter would have to allow students who are Republicans into their club, or cease their operations. After all, political affiliation is listed as one of the covered categories.

A sounder approach would be to prohibit the exclusion of people based on those categories where the distinction would constitute invidious discrimination. If a chess club excluded LGBT students, for example, it would be clear that the only purpose for the exclusion was to discriminate. The same wouldn’t be true for, say, a women’s a capella group that doesn’t want to let men join.

As if all of that were not absurd enough, the council also decided that the language used by groups must be policed — even if they comply with the membership policy:

We recognize that some organizations have operated in full compliance with the Non-Discrimination Policy whose names contain historically gendered words, like “fraternity” and “brotherhood.” But for the same reasons groups may not contain gendered language in their constitutions, they may not do so in their names … This prohibition on gendered language also applies to any materials a group uses to represent itself, including promotional materials.

It goes without saying that mandating certain language not be used under fear of penalty severely restricts the expressive rights of students at the University of Rochester. Effectively, the All-Campus Judicial Council took it upon itself to impose a new speech code on the entire campus — or, at least, on any student wishing to participate in the student organizations that are such a fixture of campus life.

If the Students’ Association Government fails to correct this ruling, we hope that the University of Rochester administration steps in and ends this policy before affected groups have their funding stripped, or choose to drop out of competitions. Considering that the ruling is so egregious, we’re frankly surprised it hasn’t yet done so.

After all the times we’ve written about Harvard’s intended sanctions policy on members of single-gender social organizations, we’ve been asked why we are spending so much time campaigning against one policy at one school. The answer is that, unlike Las Vegas, what happens at Harvard does not stay at Harvard. For better and for worse, Harvard is a trendsetter, and policies implemented first at Harvard tend to trickle out to other institutions. For example, in November of 2016, Harvard suspended its soccer team for online communications deemed sexist. Just two weeks later, Columbia suspended its wrestling team over text messages. The next month, Princeton and Amherst College suspended sports teams in similar circumstances.

Our expectation was that if the policy to sanction single-gender organizations at Harvard were to move forward, we would quickly see efforts mount to do the same at other schools. This policy at the University of Rochester does an impressive job raising (or, I guess, lowering) the bar for terrible policies made in the laudable pursuit of non-discrimination. This is the first copycat policy we have seen, and we sincerely hope it will be the last. But we are not optimistic.

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