Silenced on campus

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  June 26, 2013

TUFTS UNIVERSITY

Tufts University, the site of numerous academic freedom and free speech controversies in recent decades, earns a Muzzle this year for its treatment of the right of free association of the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) and its evangelical student members. It's one of those cases that at first glance will strike some as having been correctly decided but that, upon serious reflection, threatens every campus club or student group that centers upon either religious allegiance or political ideology.

Tufts, unsurprisingly, has a policy that requires that student groups, in order to retain their official recognition as approved organizations eligible for campus meeting space and modest student-activity financial resources, must not discriminate. It's called an "all comers policy" — any student who wants to join, must be allowed to do so. While TCF was prepared to accept homosexual students as members, it was not willing to allow students to apply for leadership positions unless they adhered to what the group deemed "basic Biblical truths of Christianity." Those tenets included living a sexually chaste life, meaning no sex outside of marriage and — here's the rub — no gay sex under any circumstances.

Tufts's student organization administration has been trying to strip the TCF of its status as an approved group since 2000. It finally succeeded this year, partly on the strength of a controversial 2010 Supreme Court opinion that ruled, by a narrow 5-4 margin, that public universities, operating under the First Amendment, could insist on an all-comers policy. While Tufts, a private institution, is not technically bound by the First Amendment, the high court decision reinvigorated the effort to eviscerate TCF for not allowing those who contest the basic religious tenets of the group to lead it. A shared ideology or set of beliefs by the leadership might not be important for a chess or a science club, but surely it is central to a religious group.

Associational freedom is fundamental to all political liberty (that's what political parties are all about) as well as religious liberty; it allows like-minded citizens to band together to engage in and promote shared beliefs and practices. Think about it: without freedom for an organization such as TCF to control the ideological and religious qualifications for its leadership positions, any number of hostile students could join, then assume such offices by majority vote, and then proceed to undermine the group's stated mission.

On a campus like Tufts, where the LGBT activists vastly outnumber the evangelicals, no such minority organization can survive an all-comers policy that opens the leadership ranks to non-believers. Some of us are old enough to remember when supporters of gay rights were in the minority in academia and elsewhere, and where associational rights were fundamental to these groups' self-protection.

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