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Supreme Court upholds ‘all comers’ mandate for student group funding at public school
Supreme Court upholds ‘all comers’ mandate for student group funding at public school
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[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the “all comers” policy at the University of California-Hastings School of Law [official website], which limits funding to student organizations that adopt the school’s nondiscrimination policy, is reasonable and viewpoint neutral and does not violate the First Amendment. Christian Legal Society [advocacy website] filed the suit after Hastings rejected the local chapter’s application for registered student organization (RSO) status because the CLS bylaws exclude students based on religion and sexual orientation. Hastings’ RSO policy mirrors the state discrimination policy and mandates that RSOs must allow “all comers” to participate regardless of status or beliefs. CLS claimed that Hastings’ refusal to grant the group RSO status violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association and free exercise of religion, and sought an exemption from the school’s open-access requirement. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in favor of Hastings, holding that a state institution may impose restrictions on First Amendment rights that are viewpoint neutral and reasonable in light of the institution’s purposes. The Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling, holding that Hastings’ policy met these specifications under the school’s educational mission, but limited its opinion to “all comers” policies at public institutions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing the opinion of the court, held that the school’s policy is a reasonable restriction because it does not involve regulations that force student organizations to include unwanted members with no choice to opt out. The court also noted that CLS could function effectively without RSO status, citing that Hastings still allowed the group access to school facilities and that improvements in social-networking services allowed CLS to communicate efficiently with fellow students. Ginsburg also stated that an “all comers” policy was not only reasonable, but “textbook viewpoint neutral” and stayed within constitutional limits:

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. … Hastings, caught in the crossfire between a group’s desire to exclude and students’ demand for equal access, may reasonably draw a line in the sand permitting all organizations to express what they wish but no group to discriminate in membership.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Alito called the majority’s opinion “a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.” He also said that “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’ Today’s decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country’s institutions of higher learning.”

In 2004, CLS became the first group to seek exemption from Hastings’ nondiscrimination policy. CLS chapters exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” or holds religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith, which all members are required to sign. After Hasting rejected the group’s application for RSO status and denied its exemption request, CLS continued to operate independently on campus. In 2005, CLS filed suit claiming that Hastings violated the group’s First Amendment rights by not exempting it from the nondiscrimination clause. The district court issued a summary judgment for the law school, which was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit.