Our long national nightmare is over ... at least until next time. The trial of Michael Jackson has now moved into the phase of "post-production," as they call it in Hollywood. Now work is under way on the voice-overs and flashbacks -- and the crews are getting ready to start broadcasting the next celebrity legal circus.
On Monday -- just a day before the verdict was announced -- Elaine Showalter published a short essay in the Los Angeles Times comparing Jackson's trial to the legal ordeal of Oscar Wilde in 1895. "Wilde too was a celebrity, as a writer and as a performer," she wrote. "Like Jackson, Wilde was seemingly brought down by self-destructive acts." In each case, "accusations of homosexual pedophilia have struck a deep chord of moral outrage."
"Wilde," according to Showalter, "was convicted of what the Victorians, with their gifts for euphemism, called 'gross indecency.' Despite the specific charges against him, gross indecency also seems to be the underlying accusation in the Jackson trial."
It's by no means clear that the term "gross indecency" could be regarded as euphemistic, even in the Victorian context. By contrast, Wilde's reference during the trial to "the love that dare not speak its name" was a memorable case of euphemism yielding eloquence.
The problem with Showalter's essay turns on more than semantics, however. Sure, there are points of similarity between the trial, but even a brief comparison of them shows that the differences are huge. Some currents in American culture might be dubbed Victorian -- if only through an abuse of analogy. The real connection between Wilde and Jackson is a little less obvious, though, and perhaps more worrisome.
Now, to be honest, I did not follow the recent trial very closely. The nature of this kind of spectacle is that, unless you make every effort to remove yourself from the "flow" of current media, a certain amount of information imposes itself on your awareness, come what may.
The Wilde trial fascinated its public because it was the revelation (a momentary glimpse) of something ordinarily hidden. The Jackson trial, by contrast, was an instance of what Jean Baudrillard has dubbed "the obscene" in the postmodern sense -- a mode in which nothing is concealed, in which every sign or bit of information manages to circulate. ("Obscenity begins," as Baudrillard puts it, "when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.")
Reading the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's trials (there were three of them), one thing you soon notice is that his creative work and his vision of the world were under just as much scrutiny as his private life. If anything, his aesthetic sensibility (in particular, his insistence that art and morality had nothing to do with one another) was slightly more horrifying to the authorities than his sexual tastes. The power of Wilde's art to corrupt the minds of the young incensed the Victorians even more than what he did with any given teenage male prostitute.
The standoff between the attorney Edward Carson's high-minded outrage and Wilde's defense of art-for-art's-sake makes for a transcript that reads like an excerpt from one of Wilde's plays.
Carson: A perverted novel might make for a good book?
Wilde: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.
Carson: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
Wilde: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
Carson: An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?
Wilde: The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my view of art. I don't care twopence what other people think of it.
Carson: The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?
Wilde: I have found wonderful exceptions.
Carson: Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?
Wilde: I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
Carson: Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?
Wilde: Certainly not.
Carson: The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?
Wilde: I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.
Carson: You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?
Wilde: I have never discouraged him.
Were sparks this brilliant ever struck during the past few months? Did the relationship between Jackson's art (or entertainment, rather) and his life ever come up for questioning?
Who can doubt that, were Jackson to announce his intention to take up residency in Massachusetts so as to marry a longtime boyfriend of suitable age, the response of most fans would be to send a card expressing best wishes?
Let's not pretend that nothing has changed in 110 years. I bet Hallmark has the design all worked out.
Wilde was accused and convicted of defying the norms of his day. That was the source of the case's resonance, at the time. And Wilde himself embraced (in however complex and ironic a manner) the idea that he had violated the established code. Later, when asked how he survived prison, he responded: "I was buoyed up with a sense of guilt."
Today Wilde looks heroic. What to his contemporaries would have seemed like incorrigibility, we now honor as fidelity to his own nature.
Freud wrote of a neverending struggle between the pleasure principle (the ruling passion of the infant's world) and the reality principle (which obliges us to sustain a certain amount of repression, since the world is not particularly friendly to our immediate urges).
Wilde was the most eloquent defender that the pleasure principle ever had: His aesthetic doctrine held that we ought to transform daily life into a kind of art, and so regain a kind of childlike wonder and creativity, free from pedestrian distractions.
Like all such utopian visions, this one tends to founder on the problem that someone will, after all, need to clean up. The drama of Michael Jackson's trial came from its proof that -- even with millions of dollars and a staff of housekeepers to keep it at bay -- the reality principle does have a way of reasserting itself.
And now that the trial is over, perhaps it's appropriate to recall the paradoxical question Wilde once asked someone about a mutual friend: "When you are alone with him, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?"
The legal and practical implications of colleges standing in loco parentis (latin for “in the place of the parent”) have waxed and waned over the history of higher education.
Colleges traditionally had the same rights and responsibilities as parents; the power to discipline the student as a parent could, but also the liability for harm that befell the student. Both the rights and responsibilities of in loco parentis began to recede as the Woodstock generation declared its independence. As the boomers asserted their freedoms at colleges and universities across the nation, in loco parentis fell away, and with it came a legal regime that treated colleges and universities as bystanders, rarely responsible for harms that befell students. And yet those same boomers, hovering over their children like “helicopters,” now insist that colleges take responsibility for the actions of their millennial children due to the “special relationship” that they believe forms upon enrollment.
As Inside Higher Edreported, Security on Campus (SOC), a campus safety advocacy group, has interpreted a recent letter of findings by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding an incident involving a Hofstra University student, to impose a new responsibility on colleges and universities -- “the same obligation to respond to sexual harassment in cyberspace that they have when the harassment occurs in the classroom.”
If what SOC is saying is that they read this findings letter to require campuses to take on the in loco parentis responsibility of protecting students from activities that occur outside of the campus environment, that is not an accurate reading of the OCR decision. Rather, the letter found insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing by the campus inasmuch as the parent of the complainant did not provide sufficient information to the campus.
Contrary to the SOC press release, the letter of findings did not reach the merits of the case. The language cited by SOC as creating a “first of its kind” standard is simply the boilerplate language describing the law and jurisdiction standards that OCR includes in its letters. One sentence of boilerplate that should be noted, however, states “[l]etters of findings are not formal statements of OCR policy and should not be relied upon, cited, or construed as such.”
Juicy Campus and its ilk are a result of some uniquely millennial math. The rise of Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites allowed first young people (and increasingly many older folks, too) to transform their anonymous selves into mini-celebrities, sending out tiny bursts of “press release” on their minute-by-minute activities, opinions on sports, politics and celebrities, and relationship status. The ideal for some was to acquire as many "friends" as possible and send them as many press-release “updates” and “tweets” as time and patience would allow. Concurrently, celebrity blogs like Perez Hilton and Pop Sugar would casually insult traditional celebrities, instantaneously sharing even the glitterati’s most mundane private secrets, while thousands of anonymous comments spewed forth all manner of vitriol. It was not long before the two forces would meet with anonymous students summoning up their e-courage to cyber-slime their mini-celebrity friends and classmates.
What resulted were anonymous gossip sites that targeted ordinary individual students. Juicy Campus was the best known of these sites. Started by a recent Georgetown University graduate in 2007 ostensibly to discuss important campus issues, the site facilitated anyone to post essentially any statement about any topic or any person, true or otherwise. While some topics on these sites are mild, much is lewd, insulting and often times horrifying.
Unlike the “bathroom wall” of old, here professors, potential employers and grandmothers could log onto a Web site and read the gossip. Juicy Campus closed its doors in February of this year, although other, less-well-known sites such as College Anonymous Confession Board (ACB) and Campus Gossip continue on. Juicy Campus may be gone, but the genre is not. Like the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, the site was universally denounced, but a popular read on campuses. It took the Internet to turn public slander into a private, anonymous weapon which, once created, will never fully recede.
When Juicy Campus arrived on a particular campus, the first instinct of student affairs professionals was one of pure in loco parentis protectionism; they sought to block network access to the site. Two campuses did so. Yet blocking is inadvisable for several reasons.
First, these sites are not hosted on campuses so the college has no more jurisdiction than it does over the bathroom wall of a local bar. Blocking such sites is as effective as telling students they cannot drink at said bar; it will only pique a prurient interest. Second, now that the Blackberry, iPhone and other Internet-capable smartphones have become almost ubiquitous on campus, students are not limited to accessing the Web over a college broadband network; if students cannot access content on their college network, they will access it on their phone, at the local Starbucks, or while at an off-campus apartment.
Blocking may even discourage students from accessing the Web through the campus network, sending them to the more expensive, but less regulated, Internet services offered by cable, telephone and cellular companies. Finally, when a college blocks one offensive site, it had better be prepared to block all offensive sites. It is hard to justify blocking Juicy Campus (or its progeny) but not blocking Neo-nazi sites, antisemitic, racist or homophobic sites, or, in traveling down the slippery slope, political and media sites that include language offensive to some students. Free speech is so central to the experience at most colleges that a process of blocking offensive sites would quickly lead college administrators down the garden path.
The costs to students of anonymous cyber-sliming are not small. Self-harming thoughts and activities, cutting, and suicidal ideation were reported among students who were victimized on these sites. Unfortunately, when the danger and harm to students comes from outside (especially digital) sources such as anonymous gossip Web sites, there is little that a college can do. Holding colleges responsible, as Security on Campus argues, for “stop[ping] the harassment of ... students on gossip sites in cyberspace” sets up an impossible standard for colleges to meet. Even more extreme, the idea that somehow an “effective response” by a college might entail “schools shut[ting] down these sites altogether” is beyond the pale.
Colleges have no such power over Internet sites. The days of Web site operators receiving cease and desist letters from colleges and quickly deleting the content while begging for mercy are long over (to the extent they ever existed). Today's Web site operators have a healthy skepticism for legal notices, may have their own lawyers, or take the legal stance that Juicy Campus took -- Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act protects the site from liability for content created by individual users. Juicy Campus declared on its Web site that with the exception of lawful subpoenas and certain violent threats, it would not take down most posts even when contacted by college presidents.
Also discomforting is a logical extension of SOC’s expansive argument, that if a student complains about harassment on a Web site and the campus does not make heroic efforts to silence the slander, the campus would take on liability for later harm against the student, whether inflicted by another or by the student him or herself. Contrary to the widely-read SOC press release, such revolutionary change in college responsibility is best left to courts and legislatures, not to a controversial reading of an OCR letter that found no liability.
Yet courts are not likely to make such a leap. For public policy reasons, courts will often assign responsibility to the party able to prevent harm in the most efficient way. Here, colleges have no real power to prevent such harm, and assigning such responsibility would not efficiently empower colleges to protect future student victims. While, in some cases, colleges may appropriately act when threats or insults are hurled on campus by members of the college community (including when community members identifiably use cyberspace to defame other community members); colleges can do little with truly anonymous speech in cyberspace.
With the digital age in full swing, colleges must reconceptualize what it means to act in loco parentis, and how, to the extent they can do anything, they can best serve their students. The answer is not to read into OCR investigations a new era of control and responsibility. Disaggregated problems require disaggregated solutions. Colleges cannot wrap their students in bubble wrap whenever they venture outside of their comfortable residence halls, and even bubble wrap does not protect against digital slander. Rather than reasserting rights and responsibilities under in loco parentis and seeking to envelope students in a protective aura, colleges should return to their core mission and educate students on how to interact within, and protect themselves from, the dangers posed by the digital world.
Through extracurricular education, colleges can empower students to turn the tables on challenges within the digital environment and use the tools presented by the Web to their benefit. In another generation, lessons on how to balance a checkbook would help students better navigate their world. Today technology services and student affairs staff can join their professorial colleagues in educating students, concentrating on imparting lessons that help students navigate the churn and froth of the digital environment (a good example of such education is Tracy Mitrano's “Thoughts on Facebook”).
Whether it is through orientation sessions, programs and speakers spread throughout the academic year, e-mails and advice letters, or other means, colleges are in a strong position to provide a robust education on practical lessons students must learn outside of the classroom. In so doing, colleges can best empower young people to defend and protect themselves in the digital environment, both as students and later as alumni. Holding colleges responsible for policing cyberspace won't protect our students or serve their educational needs.
In part two of this series, Benjamin Bleiberg and I will lay out the framework for a set of disaggregated resources and strategies students can use when confronted by digital defamation.
Joseph Storch is a lawyer in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the State University of New York.
Part I of this two-part series argued that it was inappropriate for colleges and universities to assume responsibility under in loco parentis for protecting college students from anonymous digital defamation, and that institutions should instead empower students by educating them on available strategies and resources.
In this essay, we discuss a disaggregated solution for addressing digital defamation and the resulting disaggregated harms it causes. By establishing a database-driven Web-based litigation system, we can empower students and level the playing field so that interested students can defend themselves, and hopefully deter future digital defamation.
The Digital Defamation Problem
Juicy Campus, the anonymous gossip site that closed its doors in 2009, and its replacements, such as College ACB and Campus Gossip, allow anyone with an Internet connection to post almost any content about a student, true or otherwise. The sites themselves do not necessarily target students. Instead, these sites become a clearinghouse for disaggregated, defamatory statements that cause emotional distress. The sites structure themselves by college and then by topic or victim, making it likely that the poster lives within a few miles of the victim.
Gossip may be posted freely and anonymously across these gossip sites, but it has actual victims and real costs. After reading degrading statements about themselves, victims often feel helpless, and some engage in, or consider engaging in, self-harming activities. Victims of cyber-sliming can fight back -- but for hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. Those with financial ability can hire Web services such as Reputation Defender (a service that, for a fee, minimizes the search ranking of negative postings about the client while boosting the search ranking of positive information) or specialist attorneys (who, for a fee, will investigate and file the necessary lawsuits to clear one’s reputation).
Lawsuits can be effective. Two years ago, two Yale students saw some success in identifying and pursuing those who smeared them on the Web site AutoAdmit. If they had not been represented by lawyers without charge, their partially successful pursuit would have come at significant cost. Recently, a model, represented by counsel, successfully sued Google in New York state court to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who called her a “skank” on a Google-hosted blog. With the blogger’s identity revealed, the model dropped her suit.
Yet many college students who fall victim to such anonymous defamation cannot afford high-priced reputation-clearing services or legal representation, and can fall victim to these brutal attacks with few options for fighting back. While the weapons for anonymously hurling invective across cyberspace have decreased in cost to where they are almost free, the solutions for, and protections from, defamation remain costly. To that end, we envision a system that allows victims of defamation to fight back, at a lower cost, with the hope that the market further lowers the costs of such protection to a level that deters anonymous cyber-sliming.
A Disaggregated Solution
Due to the disaggregated nature of anonymous defamatory attacks against students, even colleges who would welcome their role in loco parentis cannot take on these Web sites or their anonymous posters. Due to mirror sites and easy off-campus Internet access, blocking access to such sites is ineffective in the long term. Rather, the most effective and practical method is for colleges to educate students on how to protect themselves against digital defamation.
To that end, we propose a disaggregated digital solution to this disaggregated digital problem: a database-driven, Web-based litigation system that would allow students to file suit using fill-in-the-blank legal forms. When student affairs staff members are approached by student victims, in addition to offering counseling, they can direct the student to a system where the student can engage in self-help.
Establishing such a system will come at significant cost – a cost that can only be borne by a large organization possessing the funds to develop and host the site and the staff to keep it updated as laws and standards change, to provide technical support to student victims, and to ensure that it does not violate state rules against improper practice of law.
Possible candidates include the Anti-Defamation League, national student advocacy groups and national student affairs professionals groups. Other candidates include law school clinics whose students could design such a site and assist student victims in reclaiming their reputations. Likewise, for-profit private sector entrepreneurs may find an opportunity here.
The system’s goal is to educate students about the general laws of defamation, and guide them through the process of bringing a lawsuit in the proper court. While most lawsuits would be for false and libelous defamation, even true statements can sometimes be so vile that they qualify under certain state laws governing intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (I.I.E.D.).The beauty of a database-driven system is that it could equally provide for an I.I.E.D. claim in those states where such a claim is allowed.
Defamation suits must be brought in state court except in rare, complicated cases. Which state’s court is appropriate depends on several factors. Since most of these claims will result from postings in forums dedicated to the college or university that the victim attends, that state’s courts will likely assert jurisdiction over the matter.
Gossip sites like Juicy Campus or College ACB “do business” in any state in which they establish a forum for gossip at a college located there. Further, the publication would occur in that state (among others) while the victim, and most likely the harasser, live in the same state. Like all lawsuits, these suits will not succeed every time, and some courts may decline jurisdiction. But, for many students, the system will take them down a path toward discovering the identity of their harassers and pursuing legal remedies against them.
The System for Fighting Back
The first step a student must take after viewing a cruel gossip post is to analyze the content of the post -- honestly. Although something is hurtful, it might not qualify as defamation. Truth is not defamation. Additionally, laws typically require that the poster had to know, or reasonably should have known, that the post was false when he or she posted it. Further, the post must be a factual statement; opinions are usually fair game. The student must differentiate between “John Jones is a drug addict” (claim of fact) and “John Jones acts like a stoner” (opinion).
Admittedly, this is a difficult line to draw for Constitutional scholars, and it will not be easy for college students without assistance. A well-designed system could include a “wiki”-style guidance document where those who bring successful cases or bring significant knowledge of defamation law can help students determine if a statement meets the definition. As cases progress, sharper definitions of defamatory statements may emerge. If the student concludes that the comments are really opinions, but they are “extreme and outrageous” enough to cause severe distress, the student might still have a claim against the poster for I.I.E.D.
The second step for a student is to see if they can determine who the poster is. If so, the path is easier. If not, the system would present them with a fill-in-the-blank “John Doe” lawsuit and subpoena for the gossip site hosting the comments. Using a database, the system can offer different forms and filing options depending on the state. Some states allow electronic filing while others require printing and mailing.
Once the victim sends the subpoena to the gossip site, the third step for a student is to provide some notice to the poster. One way is to post the subpoena in the same forum used for the defamatory post. If the site cooperates and releases the Internet Protocol (I.P.) address for the offending poster, the next step is to use the Internet “Who Is” database to determine the poster’s Internet Service Provider (I.S.P.), and subpoena that I.S.P. for the poster’s identity. If the I.S.P. cooperates and identifies the poster, the victim can amend the suit’s defendant to name the poster.
Some Reasonable Criticisms
It should be noted that this system is neither perfect nor free from criticism. For every success, there will be failures: paperwork lost, I.P. addresses destroyed or not captured, deadlines missed, and sites and I.S.P.’s uncooperative. It may be that few cases go to trial. Many will die on the vine due to technical or substantive problems. The successful cases, however, may result in large judgments, especially in the cases of the most malicious and untrue gossip. These cases, even if rare, may provide a deterrent against future libel. The examples of a few bright students who declare bankruptcy, cannot buy a home or have their wages garnished to pay a defamation judgment may dissuade future harassers.
A prime criticism to this system is the position that the Internet is a bastion of free speech and nothing should stand in the way of unabashed free speech. Yet, defamation and speech intended to inflict severe emotional distress is not First Amendment protected speech. States can and do regulate this type of speech. We are not seeking a new regime that silences free speech on the Internet; rather we hope to apply the same standards to the Web that govern in the real world.
Another criticism is that this system will only work to the extent that Web sites capture I.P. addresses and submit to jurisdiction. Further, some posters will use anonymizing software or post from locations that do not capture I.P. addresses. This criticism is valid, and admittedly, the system will not work entirely for every student.
However, while some sites may choose not to capture I.P. addresses, sites may begin to receive so many of these subpoenas that they comply for the sake of cost-saving efficiency. Alternatively, Congress or trial judges may begin to find bad faith in quickly deleting I.P. addresses simply to shield malicious posters from the legal system, and the legal and legislative marketplace may, thus, correct that difficulty.
Additionally, this system will not necessarily work for non-student defamation victims. The system is aimed at college students, because these sites construct forums for individual schools. Thus, it is likely that the poster and victim live in the same state (if not the same residence hall). It will not necessarily work for those targeted from other states or countries and may not help victims of attacks on personal blogs.
Further, contrary to the successful cases discussed above, courts in some states have declined to force anonymous posters to reveal themselves. Concurrently, the system will not protect against statements that do not meet the technical legal definitions of defamation or I.I.E.D., but nevertheless impose significant harm on victims. Of course, even if the system works and some victims win massive judgments, these suits may induce no more deterrence among students than did the music industry’s lawsuits.
Such a system also presupposes that a victim is willing to go on the record in suing the poster. The requirement to file openly may discourage some victims. The Second and Ninth Circuits of the federal court system, as well as many state courts, allow anonymous filing of lawsuits when, among other things, the matter is very sensitive or personal, there is a possibility of retaliation for filing suit, the prejudice to the defendant is less than the harm of identification, and when the public interest is served by such anonymity. Such a standard could be used in these cases, even recognizing the irony of filing an anonymous suit to expose an anonymous poster. At the same time, courts must be vigilant at the dismissal stage, to protect against those who seek to use the system as a weapon by filing false claims.
Establishing such a system will be expensive and difficult. It cannot be accomplished without the support of a large organization and volunteer attorneys or law students. Defamation cases are complicated and based on differing state laws. The same could be said about the thousands of pages of federal and state tax codes. Yet, companies like TurboTax and H&R Block offer database-driven Web services that allow most taxpayers to quickly and accurately file federal and state returns without ever opening the tax code.
Reclaiming a Reputation
We recognize that establishing such a system will not be an easy sell. Even considering the above, and other valid criticism, we believe that our system will empower the many student victims who have no method of fighting back against anonymous posters. It will not be perfect, yet we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Colleges and universities can educate students on ways to employ this and other disaggregated solutions; encouraging the development of this system and educating students on its use can be part of that mission.
The attractiveness of such a system is that it would help student victims help themselves. The individualistic nature of the Internet, where amateur journalists pen millions of blogs while Wikipedia entries outnumber traditional encyclopedia articles many-fold, is not well-served by a super-regulator censoring content to protect defamation victims.
Colleges cannot protect students from all of the dangers imposed by the Internet. Rather, student victims need an inexpensive, user-friendly tool to level the playing field. Developing and marketing such a system will grant victims a much-needed gift: the opportunity to take back their reputations and return to living their lives.
Benjamin Bleiberg and Joseph Storch
Benjamin Bleiberg is a judicial clerk in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Joseph Storch is an attorney in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent the views of the State University of New York or the federal court system.
The case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which will be argued before the Supreme Court today, is one of the most important debates about student rights at public colleges. The Christian Legal Society (CLS) is suing the University of California's Hastings College of Law because the group claims a religious exemption from the college's nondiscrimination rules.
At first glance, it may seem appealing to allow religious student groups to set religious rules for their leaders. But the practical effect of embracing religious oaths for student groups is a violation of individual rights, an attack on student democracy, and a potential increase in administrative power.
This dispute has its roots in the mid-1990s, when fundamentalist groups such as CLS sought to expand their influence on college campuses but feared that Christian students were becoming too tolerant of homosexuality. In 2004, CLS compelled all of its student chapters to adopt a strict Statement of Faith and standards of sexual morality for leaders, which led to the current litigation.
The First Amendment's rights to free association and free expression are paramount in particular at an institution of higher education. However, the Supreme Court has never ruled that student groups at public colleges must be given special rights due to their religious orthodoxy, and can ignore the universal rules applied to all student groups in a viewpoint-neutral manner.
Religious groups must have the freedom to express their views, even repulsive ones like homophobia. No one at Hastings ever tried to punish anyone for being in the CLS, or barred them from promoting their views. But when the society and other fundamentalist groups demand that universities violate antidiscrimination policies and the individual First Amendment rights of their students to accommodate this bigotry, they go too far.
Who Becomes the Enforcer?
Investigating the religious beliefs, moral values, and sexual activities of students is not something that any university should be doing. But if student groups are allowed to impose ideological oaths and religious tests for membership or leadership, universities are placed in impossible situations where such inquiries will be made in their names.
The CLS defenders, which include a vast group of 22 amici briefs and 14 state attorneys general, are wrong when they cite the Supreme Court precedents for a “right to exclude.” These cases, such as Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, deal exclusively with private organizations, a term that cannot apply to student groups at public colleges, which operate under the umbrella of public colleges -- receiving their funds and using their facilities.
This legal status is important because it means that there is no entity other than the administration that can adjudicate disputes over the meaning of a student group's bylaws. This ownership issue creates a fatal flaw in the CLS argument. Suppose the Supreme Court decides in favor of CLS and it receives recognition at your public college, and then it tries to kick out a member for being gay. Now think about what would occur if that student denies being gay. Do you want a public college – or a student organization acting in the college's name -- deciding whether a student is gay or not? Or whether he is a good Christian?
It is noteworthy that the plaintiffs' brief and the 22 briefs supporting it omit any discussion of exactly who shall be given the power to interpret and enforce the bylaws they deem essential to the existence of CLS at Hastings. But in such scenarios, student organizations or, in an extreme case, a college itself would be making such decisions.
The danger is even greater in this case because of the strict restrictions demanded by CLS. In order to be officers or voting members of CLS, students must sign the national CLS Statement of Faith: “Trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior, I believe in: One God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. The Deity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; His vicarious death for our sins through which we receive eternal life; His bodily resurrection and personal return. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration. The Bible as the inspired Word of God.” Virtually all of these statements present interpretative challenges. Does defining God as “maker of heaven and earth” require a belief in creationism over evolution? What does it mean to say that the Bible is “the inspired Word of God”?
But the Statement of Faith is not the only requirement for CLS leaders. The bylaws require that “Officers must exemplify the highest standards of morality as set forth in Scripture” in order “that their profession of Christian faith is credible” and must abstain from “ 'acts of the sinful nature,’ including those in Galatians 5:19-21; Exodus 20; Matthew 15:19; Romans 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.” Envy, rage, hatred, jealousy, selfish ambitions, discord, dissensions, factions, drunkenness, greed, coveting, slander, evil thoughts, and violating the Sabbath are all prohibited by these Biblical passages.
Imagine for a minute that the CLS believes that a member was violating the statement by believing in witchcraft. She denies it. Could CLS demand that Hastings hold a witchcraft hearing?
Imagine if the leaders of a Christian Legal Society are irritating administrators with public protests against abortion rights. These administrators could retaliate by removing the student leaders for violating their own statement of faith, by accusing them of being “angry,” which is contrary to the CLS bylaws. It would be simple to accuse the leaders of some religious heresy, put them through an ideological trial, arbitrarily decree them guilty, and then remove them. So allowing religious tests in the bylaws of student groups actually increases the threat of administrative abuse because it gives the administration the power to determine the leadership of student groups. Administrators at public colleges will certainly try not to get involved in theological debates, but individual students could file complaints that CLS leaders have felt envy or violated the Sabbath, and demand that administrators (or courts) remove them from office.
CLS and its supporters argues that the university’s rules could force it to accept members who disagree with its mission. However, that’s essential in order to protect every student group.
It may seem strange, at first, to say that an organization might be compelled to accept leaders who appear to contradict its goals. But the phrase “compelled to accept” is inaccurate. The real meaning of an “all-comers” policy is that students are “free to elect.” No student organization at Hastings is compelled by the administration to accept anyone as their leader, because the administration does not pick the leaders. The members of expressive organizations are completely free to make belief-based choices in choosing their leaders.
The CLS brief claims that under an “all-comers” policy, “it would make it impossible to have … a vegetarian club (whose menus could be voted upon by carnivores)…” A vegetarian club can exist with carnivore members, and it should not ban meat-eaters in its bylaws. If it did, exactly what would that mean? Would a person who accidentally ingested meat be banned from the group? Can you eat a steak dinner every week but repent before dessert and become a vegetarian again? Could a vegan proclaim that non-vegan vegetarians are actually meat-eaters? Of course, these are all legitimate arguments for a vegetarian club to undertake when electing its leaders. However, by creating a constitutional ban on meat-eaters in its bylaws that overrules the democratic will of its members, the vegetarian club would require the administration (presumably a bunch of carnivores) to make the decisions about the core meaning of vegetarianism, decisions that instead should be made by the student members.
What CLS demands in this case is that administrators overrule student decisions about selecting their leaders. According to the Petitioners, “CLS is vulnerable to sabotage or takeover by a relative handful of hostile fellow students, who need only show up at a meeting en masse and exercise their rights to join and vote.”(Petitioner's Brief at 33) But hostile takeovers of student organizations are extraordinarily rare on public college campuses. There is not a single recorded case in American history where a roving gang of campus atheists have taken over a religious student group. The plaintiff's brief and all 22 briefs of amici curiae supporting the plaintiffs combined identify only two allegations of a campus group hijacking. In a 1993 case at the University of Nebraska, the College Republicans attempted to take over the Young Democrats, but there is no evidence in the record that they were successful. In a 2007 incident at Central Michigan University, a student on a Facebook page suggested (but apparently never took any action toward) a hostile takeover of a student organization.
The Supreme Court must not impose a remedy for a problem that, according to the written record of this case, does not appear to exist.
The nondiscrimination rules required by Hastings do not limit the Constitutional rights of CLS students. These rules protect the rights of these students by allowing members to select their leaders without interference from national organizations.
The demands of CLS run the risk of creating enormous governmental intervention and control over the religious views of students, a power that Hastings does not wish to have, and a power that it cannot constitutionally exercise. If the administrators of a public college evaluate the religious views of students and make theological decisions, they would be guilty of violating the long-established separation of church and state as well as the freedom of religious expression of students. For a public university to enforce the demands of external religious groups to restrict the rights of conscience of individual students is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
(This essay has been updated to reflect an amended version of the referenced court case at the University of Florida.)
As is always the case in important Supreme Court decisions, the framework chosen determines the result, and Christian Legal Society v. Martinez falls squarely within that tradition. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion cites Healy v. James (1972), Widmar v. Vincent (1981); and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va. (1995), cases that have restrained public colleges from discriminating against their student organizations due to the groups’ viewpoints. Reflecting their times, these three cases involved groups that perceived themselves as outliers: Healy involved the radical 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society, while Widmar and Rosenberger involved Christian student organizations, stealing a march on the earlier progressive student litigation.
The majority held that the exact issue was whether or not CLS could exclude members who did not conform to the group’s core beliefs: “In the view of petitioner Christian Legal Society (CLS), an accept-all-comers policy impairs its First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion by prompting it, on pain of relinquishing the advantages of recognition, to accept members who do not share the organization’s core beliefs about religion and sexual orientation. From the perspective of respondent Hastings College of the Law, CLS seeks special dispensation from an across the-board open-access requirement designed to further the reasonable educational purposes underpinning the school’s student-organization program. In accord with the District Court and the Court of Appeals, we reject CLS’s First Amendment challenge. Compliance with Hastings’ all-comers policy, we conclude, is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum. In requiring CLS -- in common with all other student organizations -- to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations. CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy. The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization’s expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.”
Framing the issue this way, the majority held that the central question was: “May a public law school condition its official recognition of a student group -- and the attendant use of school funds and facilities -- on the organization’s agreement to open eligibility for membership and leadership to all students?” They answered “Yes.”
In the dissent, Justice Alito instead relies upon Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Court’s 2000 decision that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays from its leadership ranks. He then parses the complex and incomplete record to find that Hastings engaged in discrimination when it denied full recognition to CLS due to the group’s bylaws, which require members and officers to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles; these include the belief that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman. The national CLS interprets its bylaws to exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” or any students who hold religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith. Their “Statement of Faith” provides: “Trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior, I believe in: One God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; The Deity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; His vicarious death for our sins through which we receive eternal life; His bodily resurrection and personal return; The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration. The Bible as the inspired Word of God.”
Justice Alito suggests that student groups with political, ethnic, or other viewpoints would not be allowed to discriminate in their membership choices, but that religious student organization should be allowed to do so, citing Dale: “It bears emphasis that permitting religious groups to limit membership to those who share the groups’ beliefs would not have the effect of allowing other groups to discriminate on the basis of religion. It would not mean, for example, that fraternities or sororities could exclude students on that basis. As our cases have recognized, the right of expressive association permits a group to exclude an applicant for membership only if the admission of that person would ‘affec[t] in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.’ Groups that do not engage in expressive association have no such right. Similarly, groups that are dedicated to expressing a viewpoint on a secular topic (for example, a political or ideological viewpoint) would have no basis for limiting membership based on religion because the presence of members with diverse religious beliefs would have no effect on the group’s ability to express its views. But for religious groups, the situation is very different.”
It surely is a very different situation. And the Religious Right has systematically sought for many years, including their efforts in Widmar and Rosenberger, to seek full public funding and special pleading with regard to student organizations, no longer accepting that they should render unto Caesar. They have appropriated earlier iconic liberal decisions to advance their interests. While not all religious organizations advance the same interests or adhere to the same litigation tactics, it is clear that there is a deliberate strategy employing careful, incremental, deliberate choices of which cases to bring to the court, by way of geographic and other political choices.
CLS is one example, following on a 2005 Seventh Circuit case, CLS v. Walker, in which the organization prevailed on its free expression and free association rights claims. Another such case is Beta Upsilon Chi Upsilon [BYX] Chapter v. Machen, a student organization recognition case in federal court, before the Northern District of Florida and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. In this case, the University of Florida, which had over 750 Registered Student Organizations (RSO), including 60 religious groups, of which 48 were Christian, denied recognition to BYX, a national Christian fraternity, under Florida’s non-discriminatory regulations, which bar groups from bias on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations, or veteran status.
Because BYX had a membership requirement that could not qualify under the university’s guidelines, it was not deemed to be eligible for RSO status. The Court found: “BYX is a national fraternity founded in 1985. It has twenty-two chapters in nine states. According to its constitution, it ‘exists for the purpose of establishing brotherhood and unity among college men based on the common bond of Jesus Christ.’ BYX espouses a strict approach to the Christian faith, and membership in the fraternity is contingent upon what the fraternity deems ‘a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ.’ This requires agreement not only with the traditional core Christian beliefs and values contained in such ancient expressions as the Nicene Creed, but adherence to a demanding view of the faith. In its doctrinal statement, BYX explains that members must ‘believe that the Bible is God's written revelation to man, that it is inspired, authoritative, and without error in the original manuscripts.’ Accordingly, “BYX considers Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists non-Christians.” BYX also demands moral and ‘sexual purity.’ According to its code of conduct, BYX believes that “sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed inside the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, we will not condone such activity as homosexuality, fornication, or adultery.”
The university, rather than risk protracted litigation, capitulated after the appeals court’s oral arguments had been heard, and modified its policy to allow a religious exception: “A student organization whose primary purpose is religious will not be denied registration as a Registered Student Organization on the ground that it limits membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization. The University has determined that this accommodation of religious belief does not violate its nondiscrimination policy.” By the new policy, agreed to in wake of the litigation, BYX was allowed all the benefits it had sought, and was treated as all the university’s RSOs.
But the fraternity was not mollified by its victory, contending that the University of Florida, a state institution, had done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. The appeals court noted: “BYX is not satisfied with this result, however, and urges us to reach the merits of its constitutional claims. It ardently presses us to retain jurisdiction over this case because the University has failed to change the regulation from which the CSAI Handbook nondiscrimination policy derived: UF Regulation 6C1-1.006(1) (the “Regulation”). Furthermore, BYX is troubled by UF's timing. It contends that ‘the timing of [UF's] motion to dismiss [this appeal] indicates that it is motivated not by a genuine change of heart but rather by a desire to avoid liability.’ We are not concerned with UF's motivation for changing its registration policy, but only with whether a justiciable controversy exists. Finding that BYX has received the relief sought in its complaint, we reject its request that we reach its constitutional claims and dismiss this case, as we no longer possess jurisdiction.”
Thurgood Marshall may well have wished that the University of Texas in 1950 had behaved better and that the LDF had not been required to spend precious resources bringing Sweatt v. Painterto have its client admitted into the real University of Texas Law School, not the inferior makeshift version that the State had offered in the alternative. But once he won the case and Heman Sweatt was admitted, he did not go back to the courts to ensure that UT do so with a better attitude or “genuine change of heart.” This extraordinary line of reasoning, even when religious groups had prevailed on the merits of the case in federal court, shows the extent to which they are on a jihad and will settle for no less than winning hearts and minds, but only according to their own, narrow terms. The LDF would never have litigated that Homer Plessy was not fully Black and therefore on this basis was entitled to sit in New Orleans public transportation’s Whites-Only sections, nor would it have reasoned that Colin Powell was not African American for affirmative action purposes, because his people were from the Caribbean rather than from Africa. It surely will come as a shock to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or others who consider themselves to be Christian that a “Christian” fraternity has expelled them from Eden and deemed them ineligible for CLS or BYX membership. And it begs the troubling question of who is entitled to trademark Christianity or to dictate who is a Christian or “morally pure.”
On the remand of the case to the Ninth Circuit, the Court seeks to determine whether UC-Hastings had actually followed its own rules in enforcing the “all-comers” policy. In this remand, I hope that the lower court will review the complex and confusing record and find that Hastings acted consistently and in good faith. I also hope all the feckless colleges that capitulated earlier will go back and restore the full anti-discrimination provisions they silently set aside. I had bet a dinner that the Supreme Court would “DIG” the case, dismissing it as improvidently granted for consideration. I also bet a different dinner that the Court would decide for the law school on a 5-4 basis. This is one meal I expect to relish.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston, and the author of the forthcoming Suing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the Courts.
There probably weren’t any Supreme Court justices marching in the pride marches of recent weeks. But they did give gay people a nod last Monday. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court upheld a University of California Hastings College of Law rule prohibiting registered student organizations from excluding anyone, in this case, lesbians and gays. The Christian Legals contended that their religion forbade them to associate with people who engaged in “unrepentant homosexual conduct,” and that the law school rule violated their religious freedom in demanding open membership.
The opinion, by Justice Ginsburg, is hardly a paean to gay rights – it carefully notes that the world of registered student organizations is a “limited access public forum,” not a full public forum like a town square. A limited public forum, which carries with it benefits, is treated somewhat more like the public funding cases. People may have rights, as the Christian Legal Society claimed, not to associate, which would protect them, for example, from a law forcing them to take gay members, but they do not have rights not to associate and to still claim money and recognition from the University of California. Certainly nothing in the opinion indicates that gays and lesbians are a specially protected class such that an organization funded by the state university excluding them particularly would violate the 14th Amendment. All this opinion does is turn back the claim that religious beliefs trump all other legal claims, including the university’s rules of inclusiveness.
The opinion is noteworthy not just for what it says about public colleges and their student organizations, but also for what it may suggest about Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the constitutional challenge to California’s Prop 8, rejecting gay marriage, as it ever so slowly wends its way to the Supreme arbiters. First, the 5-4 decisions in the Hastings case was that rarest of birds, a collection of the Court’s four liberals plus the gays’ best hope: Justice Anthony Kennedy. If the case against Prop 8 has any chance in the Supreme Court as likely configured, it rests in Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case striking down the sodomy laws as unconstitutional.
Second, Justice Kennedy’s separate opinion, concurring in the opinion of the Court, is a pretty stirring argument for the Prop 8 plaintiffs coming up from California. Justice Kennedy takes time to write separately, even though he explicitly says he only speaks to support the opinion of the Court, because he wants to say a word in defense of the special role of reason in a legal system:
“Law students come from many backgrounds and have but three years to meet each other and develop their skills. They do so by participating in a community that teaches them how to create arguments in a convincing, rational, and respectful manner.... As a condition to membership or participation in a group, students were required to avow particular personal beliefs or to disclose private, off-campus behavior ... were those sorts of requirements to become prevalent, it might undermine the principle that in a university community — and in a law school community specifically — speech is deemed persuasive based on its substance.... A school quite properly may conclude that allowing an oath or belief-affirming requirement, or an outside conduct requirement, could be ... inconsistent with the basic concept that a view’s validity should be tested through free and open discussion.”
By all reports, the strongest thing the plaintiffs in Perry have going for them, beside the obvious talents of their lawyers, David Boies and Ted Olson, is the power of rational argument. To be constitutional, legislation has to have some basis in reason. Since the defendants, cleverly or foolishly, chose to limit the presentation of evidence in Perry essentially to one dubious expert, they were forced, by closing argument, to contend, simply, that Prop 8 is constitutional, because the groundless fears of a majority of the referendum voters constitutes a rational basis for legislation. This position differs radically from the arguments that the Prop 8 proponents presented in the campaign for Prop 8, which included the damage to society by treating gay and lesbian people as normal and worthy. It even differs from the defendants’ original attempts, at trial, to present evidence that the option of same sex marriage actually harms heterosexual marriage. In essence, the Prop 8 defendants are arguing that they do not have to make a substantive, rational argument for their law.
By forcing them into a court of law, the plaintiffs challenged not so much the substance of Prop 8 as its metaphysics: What counts as reason? Inchoate fears may be the currency of political campaigns, sadly. But Justice Kennedy’s opinion reminds us that they are emphatically not the stuff of the American legal system, starting with the three years in which its practitioners learn their skills. If he means what he said, this rare bird may also be the first swallow.
Linda Hirshman is at work on a book on the gay revolution, "Victory! How a Despised and Marginalized Minority Came Out, Pushed Back, Faced Death, Found Love and Changed America for Everyone," to be published in 2011.
As an association representing institutions of higher learning, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is sensitive to the claims of institutional autonomy presented by the Hastings College of the Law in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. However, as the institutions within our organization are religious in nature, we are also acutely aware of the religious freedom concerns presented by this case. Ultimately, because this decision did not determine the constitutionality of the more common "non-discrimination clauses," its limited scope is such that this ruling has little broad applicability beyond "all-comers policies" at public universities, and in many ways leaves more questions than it answers. As higher education works to understand the implications of this limited decision, and formulate policies in light of it, the academy must wonder whether all-comers policies -- in which public colleges limit recognition to student groups that will allow any and all students to join and run for office -- though deemed constitutional, really help further the laudable goal espoused by Justice Anthony Kennedy of "enabling [students] to explore new points of view."
In his concurrence Justice Kennedy observes that "vibrant dialogue is not possible if students wall themselves off from opposing points of view." But one might ask how a vibrant dialogue is possible if opposing points of view are not present. Here, Hastings argued that CLS built the wall by excluding members who would not sign its statement of faith. Did Hastings itself, however, not build a wall by rejecting CLS as a student organization? CLS had a version of an all-comers policy, allowing attendance and participation by non-members, requiring the statement of faith only for members and leaders. Would not vibrant dialogue have occurred more readily on campus during club meetings, between members with one point of view and non-members with different points of view, than by rejecting CLS? Further, this analysis ignores the reality that vibrant dialogue occurs within groups of like-minded people – the vigorous debates within political parties clearly demonstrate this. And at a macro level, had CLS remained a student organization, perhaps another Christian group with different beliefs would have formed, creating vibrant dialogue between these two groups.
It is easy to mischaracterize CLS’s membership policy and to oversimplify it as outright discrimination, but a more nuanced approach might be more useful to the academy as it moves forward in applying this case. In Corp. of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos, a central case to the bounds of religious association, the then-leader of the liberal wing of the Court, Justice William J. Brennan, explained that a religious community defines itself by "determining that certain activities are in furtherance of an organization’s religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is ... a means by which a religious community defines itself." And this Court itself reaffirmed the constitutionality of CLS’s expressive activity, "[i]nsisting that an organization embrace unwelcome members we have therefore concluded, 'directly and immediately affects associational rights.' " Preventing discrimination on campuses is a worthy goal, but reflexively applying the hatchet of an all-comers policy may actually undermine equally worthy goals: free speech, freedom of association, and an open marketplace of ideas. Might public colleges and universities instead formulate more nuanced policies that take care to ask whether a group’s belief-based membership requirements are "in furtherance of [the] organization’s religious mission," instead of simply rejecting these groups outright?
A key tenet of almost all religions is that they hold beliefs distinct from other religions and the non-religious -- communal beliefs are essential to the religious. Religion has often been challenged to define these beliefs in the face of cultural shifts, but it is the prerogative of those within the religion to determine those boundaries. And as mystifying or even offensive as some of those ideas are to those outside (or even inside) that religion, a key principle of our American ideals is that those ideas be challenged not rejected.
Within the CCCU itself this case sparked debate – debate which we welcomed as a sign of a healthy and robust organization. Such debate is part of the fabric of academe. If in an effort to limit liability more public and colleges and universities adopt these all-comers policies, part of that fabric could be undone. Though they claim to promote diversity, they actually promote sameness. How can a robust marketplace of diverse ideas exist when no group is allowed to unite around a core set of unique beliefs that give them their identity?
Academia has long stood for a free and open expression of ideas, undergirded by the expectation that the best ones will ultimately rise to the top. Rather than merely “tolerat[ing]” unpopular viewpoints, as Justice Stevens suggests, public colleges and universities should engage them. As Thomas Jefferson said, referencing the University of Virginia, “This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
Shapri D. LoMaglio
Shapri D. LoMaglio is government relations and executive programs director of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
A week after being admonished in court for a procedural error that may have warranted a mistrial, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Monday that it would bear the brunt of settling a lawsuit filed last year by Rick Neuheisel, former football coach at the University of Washington. The settlement, worth a total of $4.5 million, came as closing arguments were due to begin in a five-week jury trial.
A foundation created by Western Kentucky University to manage its dormitories does not have the university's immunity from lawsuits, a Kentucky appeals court ruled Friday.
The ruling sends a lawsuit against the foundation back to a lower court for additional hearings, and the ruling could complicate the arrangements some public colleges have set up with foundations or related entities to manage some of their operations.