Earlier this month, the University of Rochester’s Students’ Association Government (SA) took actions to directly threaten students’ ability to freely associate. The SA labeled single-gendered groups and co-ed organizations which use “gendered language” as “discriminatory” and in violation of the SA constitution.
This entire controversy began back in January. As reported on by the University of Rochester’s Campus Times, “activists alleged at the [SA] Senate meeting [on January 30th] that 55 groups—mostly Greek life organizations, along with a cappella troupes and sports teams—are violating the SA Constitution’s policy on gender and sex discrimination and asked the Senate to review and sanction them.”
This was no small complaint. As stated above, the petition listed approximately 1/5 of the university’s organizations. The petitioners called upon the SA to either place these organizations on probation or flat-out revoke their SA status. The activists argued that these groups were engaging in “de facto or de jure” discrimination.
How, you might ask, were over thirty Greek life organizations and dozens of clubs all engaging in discrimination simultaneously? What exactly were they doing? Simply put, they used “gendered language” or “gendered words” in their constitutions, or even in their mere names.
Surprisingly (or not), the judicial council agreed with this argument. Part of the ruling reads as follows:
A name, even more than a constitution, may unintentionally turn away potential members with gendered language. Gendered names are often vestiges of previously discriminatory policies, as in the case of a group that calls itself a “brotherhood” but nonetheless accepts members of any gender identity. Names like “Women’s Curling” … have a similar effect. SA-affiliated organizations must not have names that contain gendered language.
You read that correctly. Groups were in violation merely for referring to themselves as “Women for Community Service” or even presumably “Boys & Girls Club Advocates.”
Even groups that do not actively discriminate, and allow anybody who so desires to join them in their activities, are not allowed to exist in the eyes of the SA.
The Constitutional Problem
The University of Rochester, as a private institution, is not legally obligated to provide its students with full constitutional rights. However, very few schools openly claim to deprive their students of widely respected liberties. While not explicitly in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has previously interpreted the Bill of Rights as guaranteeing the freedom of association.
The University of Rochester has most definitely taken steps to (at least publicly) protect student liberties. In the school’s Statement of Communal Principles, the University of Rochester preserves each student’s right “to express themselves through their ideas and activities.” It continues, saying that this right should not “be limited by acts of intimidation, political or ideological oppression, [or] abuse of authority.”
Somebody should have probably reminded the All-Campus Judicial Council, a judicial arm of the university’s SA, before they released their decision declaring that “gendered” groups violated the SA constitution.
This ruling makes two realities very clear for those on the University of Rochester’s campus. First, student groups will have the student government’s constitution, which forbids a wide-sweeping definition of discrimination, strictly interpreted against them. Second, the student government will not have the university’s administrative policies, which call for the protection of students’ abilities to freely associate, enforced against it.
Hopefully, the administration will address this matter in accordance with both our nation’s laws and their own stated principles.
You can read the full ruling here.