A surprising number of legal battles grow out of steps taken by a student union against student groups that they disagree with or disapprove of.  Most recently,  the unpopular flavour of the day is pro-life groups (see here).  Is a student union required to grant club status (usually involving special entitlements to funding, space, etc.)  to any group of students with a common campus purpose?

Who do we accept and who do we reject?  Illegal purposes or aims are definitely out of the question – a neo-nazi student awareness club, for example, might be easy to reject if laws against hate speech and/or violence would most likely be broken as a result.  But it gets more difficult to draw the line.  Consider any political or social issue on which the student body might be divided or substantial minorities might exist (e.g. the Arab-Israeli conflict).  And how should pluralism be valued?  Should the fact that a certain number of students hold a view (that you may find objectionable) make it worthy of being the focus of a club?

My own experience as a student activist taught me alot about this issue, and I was frustrated as a student watching my student union fail to properly articulate a clear justification for who was in and who was out (or, on a related topic, who should get more funding and who should get less).  Mark Mercer, chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, has an interesting opinion in University Affairs, arguing that the “safe” approach of denying club status where the perspective of the group may offend many people is a form of anti-intellectualism.  Agree with it or not, I’m happy to see someone take a strong, clear position on a political question that has produced severe legal consequences on campuses.

One note of caution, though, on Mercer’s comments on dealing with “anti-intellectual” student governments.  It is generally fairly difficult for a university administration to waive away or “dissolve” a student union, given that student unions are generally incorporated non-profit societies.  They have a legal status independent of the university.  And their members are the students and not the university itself.  Finally, they often have contracts with the universities, which the universities may not be able to walk away from.  This isn’t to say that universities have their hands tied; it just means they’ll have to work hard to deal with the challenge.

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