POTTS: Whittling Away At Constitutional Freedoms Over At College Of Charleston

A procession of marching students at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

If you’re curious as to where the next generation is getting the idea that government is about collecting money to give it to people you like and using your unbridled power to silence everyone else, College of Charleston, like a growing number of other schools around the country, has the template down pat.

Consider: At CoC, a student club can’t meet or take part in campus life or benefit from administration support or draw on its fair share of mandatory student activity fees unless its existence is approved by the Student Government Association. And the SGA has full authority to turn your club down cold without giving any reason why — indeed, without giving you any real resource for appeal.

The leaders of the proposed South Carolina Politics Club found that out the hard way earlier this year when they applied for formal recognition at CoC. They were turned down, ostensibly because their purpose was deemed “too similar” to that of another club, the Fusion Party.

That seemed odd, to the would-be Politics Club. What they had in mind was creating a student group that would — from an explicitly non-partisan, non-ideological point of view — endeavor to educate students on how politics works in South Carolina. They hoped to clarify the local and state political structures and systems in a way that would help their fellow students make more sense of the news and more informed choices at the ballot box.

The Fusion Party, meanwhile, is a club with strong ideological preferences that exists to gear up political participation on behalf of specific parties and candidates. That didn’t seem all that “similar” to those trying to launch the Politics Club.

Nor did it make sense that the CoC currently registers quite a few other student groups whose only purpose is to promote various political ideologies and platforms. So, there’s room for many kinds of political partisanship, but not for one group dedicated to unbiased political education?

“Right,” the SGA said, and CoC officials are backing them up. Without their official recognition, the Politics Club can’t meet on campus, promote its activities, or — as noted — receive any of the mandatory student activity fees. So, in effect, its would-be members have to financially support all kinds of groups they don’t believe in … but can’t support the group with a mission they actually accept.

When the club’s leaders tried to protest, the school’s administrators gave them three options: 1) change their core mission, 2) find some other group to graft themselves onto, or 3) give up the benefits of being an “approved” organization. In other words, “We’ll be happy to certify your right to exist … as soon as you agree to cease to exist.”

To be sure, CoC has a registration policy for those wanting to start a club that explains the criteria for approval. The purpose of a new club has to be “consistent with the mission and values of the College” (which mission and values are not explained). It has to “represent the College well” (whatever that means). It must meet “expectations of the entire College of Charleston community” (and really — how hard can that be?).

In other words, the fate of any would-be club is in the hands of a group of students (the SGA) that is authorized to act at their own discretion. Other students have no voice in who is signing off or vetoing their proposals, nor do they have any clear, specific guidelines to show them what the criteria are for acceptance, or on which to base an appeal.

The students have constitutional safeguards designed to protect them from such blunt restraints on their freedom of speech and such arbitrary administration of their money. But this is a college campus — and how many college campus administrators and activists are interested in the Constitution these days? How many even know what it says?

Of course, if there were, say, a non-partisan club on campus dedicated to disseminating that kind of information and explaining political rights and procedures … but they apparently have no need for that at College of Charleston.

If you’re wondering how our college campuses have moved so quickly and aggressively from exemplifying the “free marketplace of ideas” to being the all-but-impregnable bastions of a sharply limited point of view, you need look no farther than the oldest college in South Carolina.

Chris Potts writes and edits for Alliance Defending Freedom and its Center for Academic Freedom, which filed suit on Aug. 23 against College of Charleston on behalf of the South Carolina Politics Club.

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