After Call to FIRE, Student Advocacy Group Overcomes Viewpoint Discrimination by Student Government at Rio Hondo College

By October 18, 2011

The student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has, as we’ve written here before, not acquitted itself well in carrying out its responsibilities in the approval of funding for student organizations. On multiple occasions, as records show, the finance and legislative branches of the Associated Students government clearly discriminated against the College Republicans, who sought funding for an event with author David Horowitz, because they disagreed with Horowitz’s conservative views. In particular, the minutes of the AS Legislative Council’s May 4 meeting were a veritable "how not to do it" in impartially dispensing funds from student fees for group activities.

As it turns out, the student government at another institution, Rio Hondo College (Whittier), gave them a run for their money. Happily, though, where UCSB’s Associated Students allowed the problem to linger throughout the summer and early fall, Rio Hondo’s student government quickly amended its error.

In September, a new student group called SHOUT: The Student Advocacy Club sought recognition from Rio Hondo’s Associated Student Body (ASB). SHOUT’s constitution states that the group’s purpose is "to inform, empower and educate students of their rights and opportunity to be part of Rio Hondo’s shared governance." Essentially, SHOUT sees its function as a kind of go-between for ASB and the students of Rio Hondo who feel that their voices are not always represented. Perhaps out of a fear that SHOUT would step on their toes or create a nuisance for them, the ASB Senate bombarded SHOUT representative Phillip Lien with inappropriate questions at a September 23 meeting, betraying its impermissible consideration of SHOUT’s viewpoint and possible future activities in considering whether or not it would approve the group.

As with the case of the College Republicans at UCSB, the minutes tell the tale. Senator Christopher Almaraz, for example, seemed concerned that SHOUT would make trouble if the group disagreed with ASB’s decisionmaking:

Senator Almaraz asked how the club would approach decisions made by ASB or the Student Trustee that the club members do not support.

Another senator seemed even more concerned, implausibly wondering whether SHOUT would use extreme methods:

Senator [Gabriela] Ledezma expressed concern that certain issues may go out of control and students may be put in some sort of danger.

This seemed to be in response to critical remarks (since removed by SHOUT) left by others on SHOUT’s Facebook page. Lien reminded Senator Ludezma, according to the minutes, that "ASB is voting on the idea of the club not [sic] Facebook pages." Senator Kathelenee Reyes later "[a]sked if issues will be dealt with in an orderly manner or incite or call for something to be overthrown," bringing to mind images of angry mobs wielding pitchforks and torches.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the biased nature of the senate’s questions, SHOUT’s application for recognition was rejected, falling short of the two-thirds majority vote needed for clubs to gain recognition. (Notably, the minutes show the One Less Victim Project club and Phi Beta Lambda Society each being approved without a single ‘no’ vote.) Remarkably, the ASB Senate voted down the group despite repeated admonishments from the Senate President, the ASB Senate’s advisor, and Rio Hondo’s Dean of Student Affairs to consider SHOUT’s application in a content-neutral fashion. For instance, the minutes recorded that Dean of Student Affairs Dyrell Foster

"[S]tressed that specific questions should be avoided and focus should instead be placed on the constitution and purpose of the organization." 

They also say that ASB Senate President Zeus Galindo

"[S]tressed that the discussion concerns the club Constitution and By-laws and not previous or future happenings. Future happenings can be addressed when they occur."

And twice, Student Activities Assistant and ASB Senate advisor Jasmine Lopez weighed in on the senate’s consideration of SHOUT’s possible activities. First she admonished that

"[T]he ASB should not make assumptions …. Every club knows that if something should happen they will be addressed at that point." 

Later, when the issue of the potential membership of SHOUT was brought up, she responded that the senate

"Should not point out who are members but focus on the Constitution and vote accordingly."

Phillip Lien contacted FIRE shortly after SHOUT’s recognition was rejected, and let administrators at Rio Hondo know that FIRE was watching them and was concerned about the Senate’s unconstitutional rejection of the group. It seems that Rio Hondo quickly wised up: At the ASB Senate’s October 7 meeting, SHOUT was easily approved for recognition.

It’s for the better that the Senate quickly reversed course here, given FIRE’s record of fighting viewpoint discrimination by student governments—see, for example, FIRE’s triumph for the rights of religious and political student organizations at Northern Illinois University earlier this year-as well as the clear guidance the Supreme Court has given on the dispensation of student fees. In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995), for instance, the Court declared that "For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses." And in Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000), it stated that "When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others."

Though the record is clear on the ASB Senate’s initial discrimination, we nonetheless commend it for quickly rectifying its earlier error and seeing to the recognition of SHOUT. At the very least, the ASB Senate doesn’t have the distinction of voting to hide from public view a record of blatant viewpoint discrimination; UCSB’s student government takes the gold there, to its continued shame. Here’s hoping that Rio Hondo’s student government leaders continue to follow the Constitution, and not the example set by their counterparts in Santa Barbara.