I received yesterday a somewhat familiar email from my fraternity’s central office. Our right to free association is under attack, and we need members to call and support new legislation. The bill is the Collegiate Freedom of Association Act (CFAA). My guess is that many members from many fraternities/sororities received the same or similar emails.
As I mentioned, this is familiar, or at least not unfamiliar. Many fraternity men and women descend on Capitol Hill once a year to lobby for, among other things, free association protections. Our appointed and elected fraternity leaders are right to say this is a critical topic for our organizations. I agree. It is my belief that fraternities should serve as the vehicle to teach young men and women to express themselves.
Why then do we only hear about this critical topic for lobbying purposes?
Free Association 365
Consider the value of the first amendment to the American way of life. Our understanding that a person’s thoughts and affiliations are their own to decide was revolutionary at the time of our nation’s founding. Free speech entitled Massachusetts Protestants to establish the first modern public school system. The belief is central to the establishment of liberal arts colleges.
It allowed Mormons from New England to travel west and establish their own state. Free speech was intentionally placed first in the Bill of Rights. Each subsequent, inalienable right listed thereafter protects individuals for their speech. We have the right to bear arms, to due process, and to our property in effect to ensure that we have the right to our own form of expression. (So long as we don’t harm others in the process).
The freedom of speech and association are not only essential to fraternities, but to all living persons. So, we must do a better job of explaining that essential benefit to our members. We must do so on the days of the year where there are not bills to pass.
Internal Practices Versus Outside Front
Fraternities are private organizations, and they can set their own rules as desired. Still, our support for free expression seems hollow. Our leaders don’t emphasize free expression in their daily teachings and routines. What about the 360+ days when we don’t need to lobby Congress? Is free association important then?
True support for free expression would mean fewer top-down programming requirements. We would not micro-manage chapters with blanket checklists and bureaucratically-determined policies/partnerships. A chapter in Alabama could choose a charity local to their campus community and devote all of their service and philanthropic attention to that charity.
We would show greater support for local fraternities and sororities. Our support for our right to expression and association would trump our obsession with campus recognition. Perhaps our leaders would not wait until Swarthmore or Harvard ban single-sex organizations to release a statement supporting association rights. Maybe it would be as easy to start a fraternity as it is to start a business.
Moving Forward – Constant Vigilance and Education
The reason we must value free association is because without individual identities we become a nation of zombies. Fraternities and sororities are, in my personal and professional opinion, locked in a stagnant place. We are too eager to assume that we are all the same, and we shame and ostracize those organizations which seek to set themselves apart.
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Too many of our expectations of students revolve around good deeds and paying the professional vendor class to provide reactive education. Where are our expectations for civic engagement? Why don’t we teach members to debate topics respectfully? Is community service a punishment or a way of learning about the needs of a community?
There is no need to add such mandates to the growing checklists of excellence we already impose on all chapters. Instead, perhaps we should support those chapters which wish to serve that purpose.
I would support a fraternity chapter which builds friendship from a weekly, topical debate and an annual service project. Such a chapter would fail most university/fraternity standards checklists. That chapter may then be penalized or closed for its failure to adhere to our idea of fraternity. It doesn’t sound as fun as a chapter all about pizza, but I’m still there for it.
1A is our DNA
At the heart of the fraternity experience is a human desire for connection. We all seek to make friends, and some of us like to built rituals together and tack a name on to it. That is the essence of fraternity. Everyone has a fraternity, though some of ours are more organized around establishing deep friendships.
To truly respect the freedom of association, we must talk about the value of individual expression throughout the year. Chapters and organizations which try something new should not be discredited for deviating from the norm.
We must be less restrictive internally for our members to understand of the external threats to our existence. After all, why am I going to call my Senator to protect an oligarchy’s decision-making power? Am I just protecting a bumbling bureaucracy?