Last week Michale Stokes Paulsen wrote a striking defense of Vanderbilt’s right to prevent students from forming religious groups (while vigorously contesting their decision to do so). The idea, in short, is that the same principle that suggests Christian students should be allowed to form groups with particular identities also means that Vanderbilt has a right to corporately discriminate against student groups at odds with its values
Groups, as well as individuals, possess the “freedom of speech.” Just as individuals get to control the content of their own expression, groups of individuals, joining their voices together in some common association, have the right to control their collective message. Thus, a vital principle of the First Amendment as it applies to private groups, associations, and institutions—including private universities—is that such groups have nearly absolute freedom to create and maintain their own distinctive group expressive identities: to decide what they stand for and what views they will express.
This is the freedom that supports the right of private religious colleges to maintain their distinctive religious identities. And the same freedom equally supports the right of Vanderbilt University to maintain a distinctive anti-religious identity. In each case, the institution may embrace the principles that define it as a group and exclude or suppress messages at odds with the values for which the institution wishes to stand.
Before liberals begin to applaud, they should realize that this argument also holds when religious colleges are considering whether or not to allow, say, stagings of the Vagina Monologues. That said, I don’t believe that everything cuts both ways here. Over time, institutions grounded in humane and traditional morality will be more capacious and tolerant than those wedded to an ever more extreme and brittle progressivism. Recognizing the laws of nature and the truth of human dignity will always make one more fully and truly tolerant—denying them will lead to some variety of totalitarianism, however soft or smiling.