The ‘No Viewpoint’ Viewpoint: University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire’s Campaign Against Students’ Rights

By on April 27, 2005

In a disturbing decision last month, the University of
Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) Student Senate decided to prohibit
student groups
from receiving student-fee funding for activities that “endorse
a particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint.” FIRE issued a press release
today about this blatant disregard for students’ First Amendment rights. Furthermore,
the decision took place in light of an ongoing
and contentious debate
involving a proposed “ban” on students’ religious
activities from being eligible for fulfilling the student service-learning
requirement at UWEC.

Given this case (and cases at
the Milwaukee School of
Engineering
, the University of Oregon,
and potentially at Princeton University),
we must ask: When will universities realize that they cannot delegate their
duty to protect their students’ rights to student officials who apparently do
not understand what viewpoint neutrality, freedom of expression, and freedom of
association entail? At UWEC, however, it is becoming quite clear that both
faculty and student administrators on campus have been particularly hostile to
religious viewpoints and have attempted to use
baseless
concerns about Establishment Clause violations as justification

for restricting students’ organizational and service learning activities.

The confusion over student-fee funding distribution began
with campus debates about the funding of a controversial student magazine, The
Flip Side
, and was compounded by the proposed restrictions on religious
service learning. These debates revealed that UWEC lacked a clear understanding
of students’ rights and the university’s responsibilities under federal and
state law. For example, during The Flip Side funding debates, the
Student Senate finance director was
quoted multiple times
as saying that The Flip Side and other groups
had to prove itself to be “ideologically neutral” in order to receive funding.
Furthermore, he made a remarkable and revealing statement that the Student
Senate wanted “to exclude any groups that would be religious in nature,
political in nature or anything that would have a political agenda [from being
funded through student segregated fees].” After FIRE’s December letter
explaining how implementing such a policy would mean that the university would
be “violating its own responsibility to be viewpoint neutral by imposing its
own viewpoint…on protected expression,” the Student Senate eventually decided
to fund
The Flip Side. A month later, however, the Student Senate went
through with the recent unconstitutional funding policy change that is clearly
and unlawfully discriminatory toward students who engage in expressive
religious and political activities.

With regards to the concern specifically over religious
activities, both FIRE and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) wrote
UWEC
that allowing students to engage in religious activities either
through student organizations or to fulfill the university’s service learning
requirement would in no way violate the Establishment Clause. FIRE wrote in
December:

[T]he Establishment Clause does not
require the university to exclude religious activity from its service learning
program. Quite the opposite. The Establishment Clause explicitly permits even
the subsidy of religious activity if the purpose of the program itself is not
religious. For example, the state must provide religious student groups equal
access to student activity fee funds (see Rosenberger v. University of
Virginia
, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)) and may even provide educational vouchers to
explicitly religious schools (see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S.
639 (2002)). If UWEC decides to proceed with such a ban it must be aware
that it does so under no obligation from federal law. UWEC may also want to
consider that such a ban could exclude many worthwhile programs from
consideration, including Alcoholics Anonymous, the YMCA, Teen Challenge,
Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, various Boys and Girls Clubs and many,
many others.

Subsequently, the university removed any mention of the
Establishment Clause and amended
the proposed “ban”
to restrict not just certain religious, but also certain
political activities from being eligible for fulfilling the service-learning
requirement. FIRE has learned, however, that in a decision made yesterday by
UWEC’s University Senate, the political restrictions have been removed and the
proposed service-learning policy once again limits only religious activities.
FIRE has also learned that administrators still believe that to permit service
learning involving religious expression constitutes a violation of the
separation of church and state.

The Director of Service Learning, Donald Mowry, has been the
most vocal proponent of the religious service-learning restrictions. At the
start of the debate in October, 2004, The Spectator reported
that while Mowry has argued that many forms of service in religious communities
or organizations cannot qualify as legitimate service learning projects, he has
adamantly defended other activities, such as walking dogs. When critics
questioned how dog walking could be a “legitimate” form of service learning,
Mowry was quoted as arguing, “I’ve had many students who realize once
they walk dogs that… believe it or not …it is a societal issue, that it is
a societal problem.”

Well, believe it or not, viewpoint discrimination and
arbitrary censorship of students have also become a societal problem—especially
at UWEC. Unfortunately,
instead of recognizing the importance of religious service in the educational
and professional experience of many of UWEC’s students, Mowry and other
supporters of the restrictions on religious activity are attempting to
implement such double standards concerning the “legitimacy” of service learning
activities into official university policy. Meanwhile, the Student Senate has stated
publicly
that its own unconstitutional amendment to UWEC’s student activity
funding policy was a “victory.”

Infringing upon the rights of one student group’s freedom of
expression was bad enough. But to restrict all expressive student groups’
viewpoints—that’s just an absurd abuse of authority that opens the door to
arbitrary censorship. Any student organizations at UWEC that have been denied
funding because of the illiberal and nonsensical student-funding amendment
should contact FIRE immediately. FIRE will also continue to monitor the service-learning
debate.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire