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Using an in Class Poll to Generate Discussion

Earlier this week in class, we discussed Gay Rights Coalition of Georgetown University v. Georgetown University (1987). This case started after Georgetown denied recognition to gay student groups at the undergraduate and law campuses. The student groups sued the university, arguing that the university violated the Human Rights Act of D.C. by discriminating based on sexual orientation. The university admitted to the discrimination, but argued that freedom of speech protected its right to not recognize the student groups. As a Catholic University, Georgetown argued, it could not be compelled to recognize student groups that did not fit with its religious beliefs.

We were using this case in relation to studying the history of the ACLU. When it filed the case, the gay student group asked for support from the  ACLU of the National Capital Area (NCA). The board disagreed over whether to support the students or the university and decided to stay out of the case. On appeal, both sides asked the ACLU NCA for support again. Again the board disagreed and stayed out. However, the ACLU national office decided to file a brief in the case on behalf of the gay student group. The executive director of the ACLU NCA also decided to file a brief in the case on behalf of Georgetown, acting on his own behalf and not as an ACLU lawyer. This history provides rich material for understanding how various actors have struggled with the meaning of lesbian and gay rights generally and in the specific context of religious issues. LGBT politics is rife with internal debates and this is one prime example. But to make our discussion productive, we had to avoid getting stuck on personal opinions related to the case.

I started our discussion of the case by passing out notecards to all the students. I told them I was going to read a list of six statements, and I wanted them to write “yes” if they agreed with each statement and “no” if they did not agree. After I read the statements, I would collect all their notecards, shuffle them, and redistribute them randomly. I would then re-read the statements and ask students to stand up if their new card said “yes”. This would give us an instant in-class anonymous poll. (I adapted this exercise from a presentation on a similar exercise used for abortion rights that I heard at the SSSP conference, 2013).

The six questions I used, along with how many students of 17 in class agreed with each. Georgetown should: (1) have full discretion in what student groups it recognizes (8 agree); (2) have to treat all student groups exactly the same (11 agree); (3) have to treat an atheist student group exactly the same as all others (12 agree); (4) give full recognition, funding, and access to university resources to a gay student group (15 agree); (5) give access to university rooms and resources but not have to recognize a gay student group (2 agree); and (6) have to recognize in name only but not give any resources to a gay student group (0 agree).

This activity worked really well to open discussion on the topic. We could physically see the different opinions in the room, which legitimated everyone’s voice. It diffused the need of anyone to share their personal opinion, letting us focus on how the lawyers and courts grappled with balancing freedom of speech against lesbian and gay rights. I think this activity also reduced the chance that any students would feel excluded by the discussion. In particular, I wanted to make sure that more religious students felt included in the discussion. By validating the potential religious/freedom of speech claims, I made clear that this discussion was not about saying which side was “right.”

We built a really productive discussion from this. In particular, students engaged with the first question: should Georgetown have discretion in what student groups it recognizes. Students disagreed as to whether Georgetown should be forced to recognize a gay student group, but most agreed as a moral matter that it should. But they probed how far that would reach. Should Georgetown also have to recognize a white supremacist group? If not, where and how do we draw the line? Is it okay for Georgetown to simply assert that a student group conflicts with its religious beliefs, or should a court at least be able to interrogate if those beliefs are actually sincerely held? Students also grappled with why some people might have answered “yes” to both one and two: Georgetown should have full discretion in what student groups it recognizes, but Georgetown should have to treat all student groups the same.

I think the key to this activity was making clear up front that we would be sharing the answers, but that we would be doing so in a way that was anonymous. It also required that in leading the post-activity discussion, I made sure to frame discussion by using evidence of different opinions as the starting point for discussing the relationship between freedom of speech and lesbian and gay rights. I steered us away from explaining our personal opinions and instead kept us focused on understanding this conflict. I would definitely use this activity again when the goal is to use different opinions to frame a discussion but not actually debate the “merits” of the opinions themselves.

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