Student groups have the right to determine their own membership.
That was FIRE’s message to Penn State in May after one of its administrators incorrectly told student members of the College Independents they weren’t allowed to remove a disruptive member. But last week, the university confirmed to the group that it is indeed free to make membership decisions without administrative interference.
Earlier this summer, however, it was woefully unclear whether Penn State understood its constitutional obligations to respect student groups’ associational rights.
The issue arose in early May. The College Independents, a political student group, attempted to remove one of its members for disruptive behavior both at group events and outside of group activities, where the group member repeatedly sent unsolicited text messages to an organizational group chat. An administrator initially told the group it could not remove a disruptive member, because a student organization could not “hold a student accountable to behaviors that are not connected to the organization.” Fortunately, before FIRE got involved, the administrator changed course and allowed the group to expel the member.
We wrote Penn State nonetheless, to urge it to recommit to protecting student associational rights, to ensure that such administrative intermeddling does not happen again. Our May 17 letter explained that student groups have the associational right to discipline or remove members who disrupt group proceedings. We also publicly called on the university to embrace this right.
In June, the College Independents sent an inquiry to Penn State’s office of Student Affairs asking about the university’s official stance on associational rights. The university responded, in a July 12 letter to the group that, “Any recognized student organization at Penn State is able to make its own membership decisions.” FIRE is pleased to see Penn State made the right determination in the end.
This resolution marks the latest of three recent incidents over the past 15 months that found Penn State ultimately taking its First Amendment responsibilities seriously. In April 2022, the university rescinded excessive security fees in the wake of an on-campus debate between two political commentators. And while, in October 2022, it failed to uphold free speech when it canceled an event featuring Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnis due to concerns about “escalating violence,” in the wake of that decision, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi publicly recommitted to respecting free expression. In a video to the campus community, President Bendapudi stated:
For centuries, higher education has fought against censorship and for the principle that the best way to combat speech is with more speech, to combat bad ideas is with better ideas. Let those who wish to listen to and engage with speakers do so, in keeping with their rights. If we as a public institution censor messages with which we disagree, it opens us all to censorship.
That was hugely encouraging, and we are hopeful the university can continue to do the right thing under the First Amendment – hopefully, from the jump, going forward, and not as a matter of backfill.
As always, we’ll be watching.