Freedom of Association Shouldn’t Come with Caveats

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

A press release by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy caught my eye this week. The respected western Canadian think-tank was offering its clients “the case for ending compulsory membership in student unions in Canada’s universities and colleges.”

Hmm. Very good, of course; ending compulsory membership in student unions is long overdue, but a case? I should have thought the best case for ending compulsory membership in student unions — or in unions of any kind — was provided by the word c-o-m-p-u-l-s-o-r-y itself. Surely, it shouldn’t be necessary to make a case for ending involuntary associations in free societies. They should be ended because they’re involuntary. They should be ended because no means no. Making a case for ending compulsory associations is like making a case for ending toothaches.

Frontier’s press release begins by setting out some of this clearly and accurately. “The right to free association is widely understood to include an individual’s right not to associate with or belong to any particular organization,” it says. So far so good.

“In Canada, the freedom to associate is abridged when post-secondary students are forced to belong to student unions as a condition for pursuing higher education,” the document continues. True enough. “In all 10 provinces, membership in student unions and paying union dues are mandatory.” Yes, that’s a problem. They shouldn’t be.

“Forcing students to join these unions is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Well, maybe, I’m not sure. If the compulsion comes from some level of government, it probably is; if not, it probably isn’t. The Charter protects individuals from the government, not from other individuals or groups. Student Unions may be bullies, but they aren’t governments. What protects free people against bullies is freedom itself under the rule of law — that is, a person’s fundamental right to say no to any other person. He needs to turn to the Charter for protection only against those to whom he cannot say no — that is, the government.

Dragging the Charter into matters that, wrong as they are, may not be unconstitutional, could be a mistake. It misleads people into thinking that if something isn’t unconstitutional, it isn’t wrong.

But then Frontier’s press release takes a really ominous turn:

“The exercise of individual rights and freedoms such as the freedom to associate should only be restricted if there is an urgent need to do so. None of the arguments that are used to justify compulsory student unionism meet this test.”

Wait a minute! What test? There’s no test. If there were, those of us who consider it important to live in a free society might as well start packing.

If liberty’s watchdogs agree that the exercise of individual rights and freedoms can be suspended in case of an “urgent need” as long as the authorities come up with a persuasive argument to support it, we’re back in the 17th century. Saying to campus bullies: “Sorry, your arguments don’t meet the test needed to justify compulsory student unionism,” is just an invitation to come back and keep arguing until they get it right. But the case for voluntary student unions isn’t based on anyone’s failure to make a case for involuntary student unions; it’s based on the impossibility of making a case for compulsion in a free society. As Frontier’s press release notes, with masterful understatement, “it is morally problematic to compel individuals to belong to and pay dues to organizations whose views and actions they do not agree with.”

You can say that again!

According to Frontier, people who support the involuntary system justify it on the grounds that: (1) student unions benefit all students, (2) they secure public benefits for their members and (3) unions are quasi-government and as such entitled to compel membership and coerce dues. Frontier’s “backgrounder” disposes of these arguments by asserting that they’re not true: (1) student unions don’t benefit all students, (2) most benefits they secure are private rather than public and (3) unions aren’t governments because they do not secure natural or civil rights.

This is a relief, I suppose, but it begs a daunting question. If Frontier were mistaken, and the student unions did what they claim to be doing, would it entitle them to compel and coerce?

It seems to have come to that.

The current reality is that student unions act as storm troopers of the ideological left, compelling conformity with political correctness on campus. They monitor compliance with the shibboleths emanating from their various politburos, trying to enforce their scientific or political notions from global warming to “Israel apartheid” to the abortion culture, adding insult to injury by compelling their victims — i.e. those who disagree with them — to pay for digging the graves of their own convictions. A contemporary campus is a miniature reign of terror — sure, terror lite, strictly minor league, Stalin and Mao would be amused by it, but a reign of terror nevertheless.

I say compelling association cannot be justified in free societies. “Come on,” someone may counter, “anything can be. There’s even justifiable homicide.”

Yes, there is — but there’s no justifiable rape.