Thursday, February 14, 2013

Stop funding college clubs

A bill on the way to Gov.Bob McDonnell's desk raises some interesting questions concerning campus discrimination, the "right of the people peaceably to assemble," and the necessity of colleges to pay for such assembly. McDonnell has yet to commit to signing it. I imagine if he does, court challenges lurk in the future. Still, it's a debate that should continue on and off campus.

House Bill 1617 aims to allow student organizations at public colleges and universities to restrict membership only to those who are "committed to the organization's mission." Furthermore, the bill prohibits such schools from "discriminating against a student organization that makes such a determination." Both halves of the bill's text are prefaced with the caveat "to the extent allowed by the law."

That reference would seem to pay deference to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Societyvs. Martinez. That finding ruled constitutional a California school's policy mandating that campus groups allow "all comers" to join and even be elected officers, even those who were fundamentally opposed to a group's very raison d'ĂȘtre

So would this new Virginia law pass constitutional muster? There are differences in the Martinez case and what HB1617 tries to do (the Christian Legal Society in question had agreed to the restrictions but tried to avoid them). So I'm guessing some court will have to sort it all out.

For most people, the idea of joining a group with which you disagree would seem to range from the pointless to the inconsiderate. Most of us would find it commonsensical that any group can decide its own membership, and forcing it to accept members diametrically opposed to its mission would be some measure of tyranny. Most people don't exist on a politically correct college campus.

Imagine a college with a large group of vocal Republican students. Or if you prefer, make them Democrats. They infiltrate a meeting of the campus group of the opposite party, which is not allowed to exclude them. They then use their numbers to elect themselves officers and proceed to block any actions in support of candidates they don't like. Farfetched? Maybe, but HB1617 would prevent it.

Must an animal rights group be forced to accept a hunter? Should a campus National Rifle Association chapter be compelled to grant membership to gun-control advocates? A vegetarian club have to endure erstwhile "members" bringing cheeseburgers to every meeting? A Jewish group forced to accept an outspoken Nazi? A Mormon club made to tolerate someone trying to proselytize for a different faith? Must a fan club at Tech admit UVa supporters with no questions asked?

Most of us would say no, regardless of our view of any of these issues. (Suddenly, I am reminded of Groucho Marx's famous quip that he didn't want to belong to any club with standards low enough to accept him.)

The usual complaint in this area (as in the Martinez case above) is against Christian groups, whose ideas of traditional sexual morality contradict the prevailing orthodoxy on most campuses. Such antediluvian intolerance cannot be (ahem) tolerated. Somehow the threat of diehard Catholics infiltrating a pro-abortion advocacy group doesn't seem to come up often. A fair rule has to cut both ways.

Opponents of HB1617 would say the issue isn't the content of the group's message, but whether that group accepts money from the school. If they are funded by the school, they may not discriminate in any fashion. But to deny citizens the right to assemble with those who share common values is in itself a form of discrimination, is it not?

For that matter, if college funding is the issue, one might ask how someone with no athletic abilities or interest can be kept off of the football team.

Others contend that the "all comers" standard fosters discussion and a search for common ground. Maybe sometimes. But all too often the underlying theme is "you have to accept me or shut up." How does this foster reasonable discussion?

Why should any such group be funded by a public institution? Rather than pick and choose acceptable organizations, why not defund them all? Let the college Democrats and the college Republicans finance themselves. Let's face it, most campus clubs have nothing to do with the reason students are ostensibly there: to get an education. Instead of attending meetings of the Snowboard Fanciers or Video Gaming Guild, the students should probably be in the library studying.

Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.

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