Freedom of Association: The First Liberty

Devon Verbsky

Dr. Luke Sheahan, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Duquesne University, held a presentation at the Memorial Student Center in regard to the freedom of association and how it affects us as individuals in our everyday lives. The presentation was held on Tuesday, Sept 17.

Freedom of association is defined to be the right to form societies, clubs and other groups of people and to meet with those people individually without interference by the government. If taken the wrong way, it can derail other rights such as freedom of religion, speech and press.

Dr. Sheahan explains that upon evidence in multiple court cases in the past, the United States Supreme Court does not realize how big of an impact the freedom of association really has. One of the largest court cases to ever weaken this First Amendment Law was Christian Legal Society (CLS) vs Martinez in 2010.

The court ruled in this case that the university can force a religious student group to allow anyone to join that group, whether that individual agreed to the terms of the group or not. “What has seemed to be missing throughout the entirety of cases related to this one is more or less the concept of association itself,” Dr. Sheahan said.

To better understand what makes up an association, Dr. Sheahan used Robert Nisbet’s explanation of the seven pieces that make up a group. These pieces are function, dogma, authority, hierarchy, solidarity, status and superiority. Each group must have some form of these values. In relation to the Christian Legal Society (CLS) vs Martinez, the CLS contains all of the Nisbet’s to be considered a group and every group or association will have functional autonomy. What this means is that each group functions based on what they wish to do.

Dr. Sheahan said that the freedom of association gives a lot of power to other rights, and that the idea of assembly and association being undercut, can undercut a lot of other important things such as religious studies, recreational events or even certain groups within the workplace. Dr. Sheahan has set up the Freedom of Association Protection Act. This act will protect the freedom of association in its entirety. The act draws upon the true power of the First Amendment as a whole and not piece by piece.