Raleigh, N.C. — Student organizations at public universities and community colleges would be able to oust leaders who don’t share the groups’ core beliefs under a bill approved Tuesday by the House Education Committee.
The Senate bill clarifies the rights of political and religious student groups, which sponsors say can face pressure from university administrators.
Sponsor Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, said the legislation protects the First Amendment rights of students.
“This is really reiterating what these rights are,” Soucek said. “A simple example is that a strong Republican should not be president of the Young Democrats at a university. It really goes to the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech.”
Some lawmakers questioned the need for the legislation, saying student organizations already have these rights.
“I agree with the sentiment there, but a bill to do that? Are you doubting that the organization internally can handle the problem of a president who suddenly doesn’t share the beliefs of the organization?” asked Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
But Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said recent examples of university officials violating Christian student groups’ First Amendment rights highlight the need for clarification.
Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, a university professor, expressed concern that the bill limits school officials’ oversight of student groups.
“I’m a big supporter of students, but there are some administrative regulations that help students do what they need to do,” Adams said.
So-called "all-comers" policies were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court four years ago, but legislative staffers said the ruling allows schools to have non-discrimination policies among student groups but doesn't require them.
Soucek said the bill would not not force schools to grant recognition to all student groups but would prevent administrators from violating students’ free-speech rights.
“There’s been problems with universities infringing on the core beliefs of the organization, and that was what this is to address,” he said.
Although the bill allows student organizations to remove officers whose beliefs don’t align with the group’s mission, the restriction does not apply to all members of campus groups. Soucek said he has spoken with college students who want to limit top group positions to like-minded leaders while still including members with differing views.
“They really liked the idea of people with diverse views being invited,” he said, adding that membership in a student group is difficult to define.
The bill is expected to head to the House floor.