ACLU Position on Student Clubs

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The ACLU believes that student-initiated clubs have the right to hold meetings on campus after hours and to use the school's communication forums to announce the time and place of their meetings. All student-initiated clubs have the right to speak on campus and circulate leaflets or underground newspapers at school. However, the ACLU believes that no student-initiated club has a legal right to force the school to give official endorsement and money to the group if the school does not wish to sponsor it. The ACLU also believes that schools should not and cannot give official endorsement and money to student clubs that have discriminatory membership policies. These principles apply equally to all student-intiated clubs regardless of their subject matter, whether they are Bible Clubs, Gay/Straight Alliances, or Chess Clubs. 

Under existing Washington law, affiliating a student club with the school's Associated Student Body (ASB) is a method of conferring school endorsement and funding. Therefore, the ACLU has consistently opposed the recent efforts to stretch the Equal Access Act into a guarantee of ASB affiliation, school endorsement, and school money. Properly understood, the Equal Access Act gives student clubs a right to meet and speak on campus. It does not give a right to force a school to bestow its official sponsorship or money on the club when the school either does not want to sponsor it or is legally prohibited from sponsoring it. 

This is the position the ACLU took in Prince v. Jacoby, a case involving a student Bible club that discriminated on the basis of religion. The students wanted the school to accord ASB status to the club. The ACLU’s amicus brief explained that affiliation with the ASB is a source of official endorsement and money, which is far different from the right to meet and speak on campus. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled differently holding that ASB status is not a form of sponsorship or endorsement, and is therefore not prohibited by the EAA or Establishment Clause. 

To inform school districts about this significant change in the law, the ACLU sent to all school districts in Washington a document titled "Associated Student Body Clubs Under the Equal Access Act.”  The document explained how Prince changed the law, and suggested how school districts could best comply with it.  Specifically, the ACLU recommended that schools should not condition the right of a group to meet or speak on campus with the privilege of affiliating with the ASB. 

In Truth v. Kent School District, a case involving a group of high school students who formed a Bible study club that restricts its voting membership to Christians, the ACLU once again notes in its friend-of-the-court brief, the difference between the right to meet and speak on campus and the demand of a group to gain a school's unwilling endorsement and funding. The school allows the Bible club to hold meetings on campus, but will not allow any student group with discriminatory membership policies to affiliate with the ASB organization. The ACLU urges the court to restore the law to where it was prior to the holding in Prince

In all of these documents, the ACLU has a consistent message. Every student group -- even ones the school does not wish to sponsor -- has a right to meet and speak on campus when the school has created a forum for such clubs. But no student group has a right to force a school to give it official sponsorship or money against the school's wishes or in violation of the school's legal duties. 

The ACLU’s analysis of the law regarding student clubs is available on the ACLU of Washington Web site at