MIDDLETOWN, Conn., May 9, 2011—In a partial victory for freedom of association, Wesleyan University has reformed a policy that would have punished students for “participating in social activities” on the property of any “private societies” not under Wesleyan’s control. The policy was intended to force the Beta Theta Pi fraternity to officially affiliate with the university under an agreement that the fraternity had found unduly burdensome. Beta Theta Pi came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. After FIRE intervened and the policy generated an overwhelmingly negative response from Wesleyan students as well as national media outlets, Wesleyan altered the policy. However, the revised policy now explicitly discriminates against Greek organizations of Wesleyan students.
“While it has moved in the right direction, Wesleyan has yet to live up to its stated promise of freedom of association,” FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said. “A private university may require its students to live on campus or in program housing, but Wesleyan’s newest policy singles out Greek organizations without providing any reason why.”
On February 14, 2011, Wesleyan Vice President for Student Affairs Michael J. Whaley emailed the Wesleyan student body announcing a dramatic, extremely broad restriction on student association that was scheduled to take effect in August 2011: “Wesleyan students are prohibited from using houses or property owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University. This prohibition includes using such houses or property as residences, taking meals at such houses or property and participating in social activities at such houses or property.”
Whaley’s email made clear that the new policy was added specifically to attack the freedom of association of the members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, at that time the lone holdout against an affiliation agreement with Wesleyan.
FIRE wrote Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth on February 16, 2011, notifying him that the policy violated Wesleyan’s binding promise of freedom of assembly in Wesleyan’s “Joint Statement on the Rights and Freedoms of Students” dating back to 1969. FIRE pointed out that the absurdly broad policy effectively banned students from participating in social activities on a vast amount of off-campus property including houses of worship, the Middletown Elks Lodge, the Italian Society of Middletown, and a wide variety of private societies throughout Connecticut.
Wesleyan responded to FIRE’s letter and considerable student activism against the university’s intrusion on student rights by revising the policy and the affiliation agreement. The new policy, however, now explicitly discriminates against student Greek organizations—defined as “existing, private, residential, independently chartered Greek organizations” that “satisfy the requirements for social fraternities and sororities established by Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972″—particularly when the organizations are unrecognized by the school. As of August 2011, Wesleyan students may be punished for eating, sleeping, or participating in social activities on the property of any unrecognized Greek organization—but not on the property of all of Wesleyan’s special program housing.
“If Wesleyan ever ends its affiliation agreement with the fraternities, they will be back to square one,” FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. “Although the doctrine of in loco parentis was abandoned by our nation’s colleges and universities several decades ago, Wesleyan continues to intrude into the social lives of students as though they are not the adult citizens they really are.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.