Student Group Sues University for Viewpoint Discrimination

By on July 25, 2008

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit yesterday against Wayne State University on behalf of Students for Life, a pro-life group that was refused funding based on a student fee policy that unconstitutionally denies equal funding to religious student groups. ADF’s press release explains the circumstances of the case:

Andrea Bezaire, president of WSU Students for Life, submitted a budget request to WSU’s Budget Committee to help fund the group’s Pro-Life Week 2008 events. The committee denied the request "because of the spiritual and religious programming references in the cover letter."

In Bezaire’s appeal of the denial, she removed all religious references in order to meet the budget committee’s demands. Even so, the university replied by again denying the group’s entire budget request, with some student council members stating that the subject matter of the group’s events was inappropriate and would greatly offend women who had an abortion.

The lawsuit also challenges the facilities use policy, which, according to ADF’s complaint, "grants officials unbridled discretion to deny student organizations access to campus facilities based on the organization’s particular viewpoint." The Supreme Court defines "unbridled discretion" as the ability to govern by vague rules. The Court has ruled that policies and laws that give government officials "unbridled discretion" are unconstitutional because they enable the government (here, in the form of state university officials) to make decisions based on the ideological or religious predilections of those officials.

This case is a perfect example of a violation of the constitutional principle of viewpoint neutrality as explicated by the Supreme Court in Rosenberger vs. Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995). In that case, the Court ruled that the University of Virginia violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech by refusing to fund a student paper based on the paper’s religious viewpoint. The Court wrote in Rosenberger, "The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction." If the university charges students fees, it is required to distribute them on a viewpoint-neutral basis.

Likewise, in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System vs. Southworth (2000), the Court upheld the viewpoint neutrality principle, allowing the university to collect mandatory fees so long as those fees were distributed on a viewpoint-neutral basis. The Court wrote:

Viewpoint neutrality is the justification for requiring the student to pay the fee in the first instance and for ensuring the integrity of the program’s operation once the funds have been collected.

The students involved in Students for Life at Wayne State are required to pay mandatory student fees in order to attend the university. According to Supreme Court precedentand the principles of fairness and equalitythe students must have equal access to those funds when they are distributed for student activities. ADF Senior Counsel Nate Kellum sums up the application of the viewpoint-neutrality principle to the Wayne State situation well:

Wayne State currently extends funding to student groups with a whole range of different views; it cannot single out this one for discrimination. What it really appears to come down to is that the values of Students for Life conflict with the politically correct philosophies embraced by the university, and that is not a sufficient legal basis for discriminating against the group.

For more information on the constitutional principles guiding religious liberty and student fees, see FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus and FIRE’s Guide to Student Fees, Funding, and Legal Equality on Campus. Both Guides are available free upon request to students and faculty members and are available for free download on FIRE’s Guides page.