With the introduction of the College Freedom of Association Act, two notable things happen: a rare example of bipartisanship in Congress, and a welcome defense of the right to peaceable assembly on college campuses.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ruben Gallego, Democrat from Arizona, and its co-sponsors include Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican from New York. Twenty-one members of Congress have signed onto the bill.
Of course, we shouldn’t need a bill in Congress to protect peaceable association on college campuses. Assembling for social or intellectual purposes is a big part of the college experience. So why do we even need this bill?
Well, we need it because a number of colleges and universities—most notably including Harvard, alma mater to both Gallego and Stefanik—are impeding free association as it relates to single-sex clubs and activities.
Not surprisingly, the bill didn’t get favorable coverage from the Harvard Crimson, which reported:
The bill — called the College Freedom of Association Act — seeks to amend the Higher Education Act “to uphold freedom of association protections,” according to a summary.
The CFAA would prevent universities from penalizing students who are members of single-gender organizations, whether or not the groups are officially recognized. If passed, it would almost certainly bar the College from enforcing its policies.
College’s sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of unrecognized single-gender final clubs, fraternities, and sororities from holding leadership positions in recognized student groups, captaining varsity athletic teams, and receiving College endorsements for certain prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.
Yes, the bill would prevent the college from punishing students who want to belong to a single-sex organization, a sorority or fraternity, for example.
I’ve been meaning to call your attention to a piece on Harvard’s sanctions of single-sex organizations by Harvard alum Harry Lewis. It appeared in the Washington Post (subscription required). Mr. Lewis wrote:
The policy was hard to defend, as the college’s shifting rationalesappeared to acknowledge. The initial rollout of the rules highlighted correlations between sexual assault and off-campus clubs. But when the data didn’t hold up, the rationale was broadened. The policy was said to be a strike against misogyny (though it would mostly hurt women’s clubs) and hereditary privilege (though the blood no longer runs blue in the men’s clubs).
Even more vaguely, the sanctions were justified on the supple principles of “non-discrimination” and offense to Harvard’s “deepest values” — and all student clubs would be monitored for “inclusivity.” No First Amendment right was implicated, the argument seemed to be, because as a private institution Harvard is free to outdo the Constitution in pursuit of justice.
A few of the men’s clubs had a reputation as places where women would be well advised to use the buddy system and to watch their drinks. But rather than using education or police action to shut these few down, Harvard tried to find a lawful method that would leave the authorities with clean hands while getting rid of them all. Whether the university’s method was indeed lawful is being challenged in court by national fraternity and sorority organizations.
It is increasingly evident that this strategy was meant to advance Harvard’s larger social agenda of reprogramming students. The university’s language about educational purpose has shifted drastically over the decades. When setting out its goals, Harvard used to talk about developing students’ independence and self-sufficiency — rhetoric that has now largely been replaced by talk of intentional, directed change. “We hope to foster the conditions for social and personal transformation,” said a recent announcement.
We should all be sorry that a bill such as the College Freedom of Association is necessary–but glad legislators are addressing sanctions on free association on campus.