EAST LANSING, Mich., November 16, 2012—Michigan State University (MSU) has reaffirmed the First Amendment rights of student organizations this week after it wrongly denied funding to a student group. When the MSU College Libertarians were denied funding to bring bestselling author Tom Woods to speak on campus on the faulty basis that groups with “political agendas” were ineligible to receive student activity fee funding, the group contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“The right to engage in discussion of public affairs is one of the most fundamental freedoms the First Amendment has to offer. Nowhere is this more important than in our colleges and universities,” Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Senior Vice President, said. “Luckily, MSU has remembered its obligations as a public university, and recognized the rightful place of the College Libertarians and other expressive groups in the marketplace of ideas.”
In September 2012, the College Libertarians, a recognized student organization at MSU, applied to the Associated Students of Michigan State University’s (ASMSU’s) Funding Board for $4,450 in funding to host a lecture by bestselling author and historian Tom Woods. The event, originally scheduled for November 8, was to provide, according to the group’s application, “a comprehensive lecture on the 2008 economic collapse” and “a perspective from the Austrian School of economics, which differs from mainstream economics that are more often taught in our universities.” The group presented its application to the Funding Board in an interview on September 18.
On September 26, however, College Libertarians President Robert Fox was notified by the Funding Board’s chair via email that the student government “cannot fund groups with political agendas.” The email further stated that it was “not fair … to seem like we [ASMSU] are pushing a particular political agenda,” and that doing so “can lead to legal action.”
FIRE wrote to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon on October 19, making clear that not only was ASMSU allowed to provide funding from MSU’s mandatory student activity fees for the College Libertarians’ proposed event, but that it was required to ensure that such events were eligible for funding in light of the Supreme Court’s multiple rulings that funding and other benefits must be made equally available to student organizations, on a content- and viewpoint-neutral basis. Denying the College Libertarians funding on the basis of its alleged “political agenda,” FIRE warned MSU, would put the First Amendment rights of countless other expressive organizations at risk, including advocacy organizations such as MSU’s chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace.
Shortly after FIRE sent its letter, the College Libertarians were informed by the Funding Board that their application for funding would be re-reviewed. On October 23, the Funding Board approved the College Libertarians’ request for funding. This week, FIRE received a letter from MSU Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Denise B. Maybank, confirming that the group’s funding had been approved and stating that “it is my expectation that ASMSU will fund student groups in a content and viewpoint neutral manner under the First Amendment.” ASMSU also plans to review its policies to make sure they are fully compliant with the First Amendment. The College Libertarians plan to host Woods on campus on December 4.
“We commend Michigan State and its student government for quickly addressing this important free speech issue,” said Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Unfortunately, it’s another lesson that student organizations interested in public affairs and activism can all too easily be denied the full extent of their First Amendment rights. Hopefully other universities will take note of Michigan State’s example.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Peter Bonilla, Associate Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University: 517-355-6560; firstname.lastname@example.org