Below is a letter I've sent to the Duke Chronicle about the de-funding and proposed de-chartering of the Duke College Republicans after they were accused of impeaching their president because he is gay. The principle that students get to pick their leaders may surprise some people considering my strong support for the CLS v. Martinez decision preventing discriminatory student groups. But there's a key distinction to make: in the CLS case, the issue was whether the constitution of the student group could ban dissenters from holding office. The Duke College Republicans have no such ban; the bigotry they exhibit was the result of student decisions, but never written into the policies of the organization. In both cases, I stand for the principle of student democracy, that students should make the decisions about their leaders without being overruled by higher authorities.
To the Editor of the Duke Chronicle:
I am no defender of the College Republicans (I wrote an admiring book about Barack Obama), and I despise the homophobia that apparently motivated the impeachment of their president. But I also wrote a book about free speech on campus called “Patriotic Correctness,” and I believe that student freedoms and student democracy are at stake here. Students in the College Republicans should be free to elect (or impeach) anyone they want for any reasons they want. The College Republicans deserve condemnation in the court of public opinion. But they must not be denied funding or banned entirely over speculation about the reasons for their selection (or impeachment) of leaders. In our society, we prohibit discrimination by employers. But we never overrule electoral decisions even when clear evidence of discriminatory motivations exist. The College Republicans should be free to pick their leaders.
The vague language of a “culture of discrimination” is particularly alarming. It should not surprise anyone that a student group for a Party seemingly devoted to bigotry might have such a culture. But we need to criticize this culture, not ban it. The facts are definitely in dispute, and there are many legitimate reasons given on the surface by the Republicans for the impeachment. Finding the true reason for the impeachment requires an act of mind-reading, and no one should trust a political body such as the Senate to do this fairly. But even if we were certain that homophobia motivated the impeachment, the actions of the student senate would be wrong. In a free society, and at a free university, we must defeat hatred with better ideas, not banishment.
John K. Wilson