EAU CLAIRE, Wis., April 27, 2005—The University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) Student Senate has amended its rules to forbid any student-organized activity that promotes a “particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint” from receiving student-fee funding. This new policy directly contradicts the university’s First Amendment obligation to distribute student funds regardless of viewpoint and violates the rights of all UWEC students.
“UWEC is defying the First Amendment,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has written UWEC to protest the new policy. “The only way the student activity fee structure is constitutional is if fee money is dispensed on a viewpoint-neutral basis. If UWEC refuses to comply with its constitutional obligations, it must scrap the student fee system entirely.”
On March 14, 2005, the UWEC Student Senate approved an amendment to the school’s “Organized Activity Funding Policy,” adding a requirement that student groups or events “shall not endorse a particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint” if they want to be eligible to receive student-fee funding. The decision to approve this deeply troubling amendment is directly at odds with federal law and Supreme Court precedents set by cases such as Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents v. Southworth (2000).
Student Senate Finance Director Matt Wisnefske was among those who proposed the change. During a previous controversy regarding the approval of a new student magazine, The Flip Side, in December of 2004, Wisnefske was quoted in UWEC’s student newspaper, The Spectator, as saying, “We want 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 wrote UWEC in December 2004, the Student Senate eventually approved The Flip Side; however, the Student Senate then passed the recent amendment in order to avoid “unnecessary confusion” like that garnered by The Flip Side’s funding controversy.
On April 6, 2005, FIRE wrote UWEC Interim Chancellor Vicki Lord Larson to protest the Student Senate’s actions. FIRE explained, “UWEC, as a public institution of higher education, cannot and must not forbid student organizations from determining their mission and membership based on particular ideological, religious, or political viewpoints, and must not deny them funding if they organize events expressing those viewpoints.”
FIRE also urged Larson to review FIRE’s December letter to former Chancellor Donald J. Mash, which addressed a proposed “religious service learning ban” as well as the maintenance of viewpoint neutrality in student-fee funding distribution. In that letter, FIRE warned UWEC that “faculty and student administrators are confusing the university’s obligation as a state actor with that of its faculty and students who are private citizens. Through the current student funding criteria, the university is in fact violating its own responsibility to be viewpoint neutral by imposing its own viewpoint (in this case an amorphous and unattainable belief that “bias” must be avoided) on protected expression.”
“It is astounding and absurd that any student government would adopt the viewpoint that a student group having a point of view is a bad thing,” commented Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “In the past few years, FIRE has seen a disturbing trend in which students and administrators seem willing to restrict all expression rather than contend with a single point of view they dislike. As long as students harbor such a clear hostility to the marketplace of ideas, free speech is in serious jeopardy.”
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 at campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Vicki Lord Larson, Interim Chancellor, University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: 715-836-2327; firstname.lastname@example.org
Aaron Olson, Student Senate President, University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: 715-834-2491; email@example.com
* Due to a filing error at FIRE, the original version of this press release stated, “UWEC has not responded to either of FIRE’s letters.” In fact, UWEC did respond to FIRE’s first letter with a letter dated January 13, 2005. Nothing in that letter, however, affects the other facts in this press release. FIRE regrets the error.