DEKALB, Ill., Dec. 6, 2010—Last night, the Northern Illinois University (NIU) Student Association Senate denied recognition for the second time to NIU Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). As a result, SSDP may not meet on campus, post flyers, or reapply for recognition for two years. The Senate also denies funding to all “political” and “religious” student organizations, including the Model United Nations, which it labels a “political” group. Meanwhile, groups dubbed “social justice” or “advocacy” groups—including student pro-life, pro-choice, antiwar, women’s rights, and victims’ rights groups—are eligible for funding. SSDP came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“For too long, campuses have utilized hopelessly vague policies that allow them to favor some student groups and kick others off campus. At Northern Illinois University, we see the utter folly of such policies in practice,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “First, NIU twice prevents SSDP from becoming a student group. Next, NIU passes rules that brazenly flout Supreme Court law by discriminating against all ‘political’ and ‘religious’ groups. Finally, NIU demonstrates the impossibility of imposing such policies fairly by granting full recognition to a victim-rights group that employs ‘legislative tactics’ while denying it to the Model UN and the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife. At a public college like NIU, this kind of double standard is not only unfair but laughably unconstitutional.”
SSDP first came up for recognition on October 24, 2010, as a “Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support” group because it advocates ”that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society” and seeks “to reduce the harms caused by drug abuse and drug policies.” The Senate denied recognition to SSDP but offered it a chance to be recognized as a “political” group, which would render it ineligible for funding.
On November 7, the Senate then issued hopelessly vague definitions of “political” and “religious” groups that guarantee an unconstitutional double standard. Indeed, Advocates for Choice, Campus Antiwar Network, Consumer Education Society, PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), Students for Life (NIU), Vegetarian Education Group, and Women’s Rights Alliance are eligible for funding as “Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support” groups, yet funding is denied to the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife and the Model United Nations, an academic simulation of the UN. Similarly, the Baha’i Club, dedicated to discussion of the Baha’i faith, is eligible as a “Diversity and Cultural” organization, while Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel, Latter Day Saint Student Association, Muslim Students Association, Newman Catholic Student Center, Pagan Student Association, and many more are not. Under the new definitions, NIU Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers—currently ineligible for funding—will become eligible.
The new definitions even prohibit a student group from receiving Activity Fee funding if any of its activities result in any individual, anywhere, “petitioning Federal, State, or Local legislative or executive bodies for policies advocated by that group”—amazingly violating the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances.
FIRE wrote NIU President John G. Peters on November 18, explaining that the Senate is bound by the First Amendment and that NIU is obligated to step in if the Senate fails to uphold students’ rights. FIRE’s letter reminded NIU of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents v. Southworth (2000), which established that public universities like NIU are required to grant political, religious, and other expressive organizations equal access—on a viewpoint-neutral basis—to student fee funding distributed to other student organizations. NIU Deputy General Counsel for Administration Gregory A. Brady replied on December 3, announcing last night’s special Senate meeting. Now that the Senate has denied recognition to SSDP altogether, NIU must immediately step in to preserve students’ rights.
“NIU’s Student Association Senate has violated all five of the rights codified in the First Amendment,” FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. “The Senate violated the rights of freedom of speech and assembly by denying recognition to Students for Sensible Drug Policy and by discriminating against all groups it arbitrarily deems ‘political’ or ‘religious.’ The Senate violates the right to freedom of the press by stating that unrecognized groups are prohibited from posting flyers on campus and that publications will presumably threaten a group’s funding. The Senate’s policy violates the First Amendment religion clauses, since Baha’i, humanist, and atheist groups can receive funding to discuss religious topics, but other religious groups get nothing, in practice favoring some religious groups over others. Finally, perhaps the Senate’s most stunning achievement of all was to violate the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances.”
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.
TAKE ACTION: Tell Northern Illinois University to meet its moral and legal duty to prevent the NIU Student Association from violating the First Amendment.