In March, student organization Students for Life at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) enlisted Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF’s) help in suing the school after it denied the group funding based on its “political or ideological” views. ADF announced yesterday that EMU settled the case late last month, agreeing to fund all groups—including Students for Life—without consideration of the groups’ viewpoints.
ADF describes the lawsuit’s origins on its website:
In February, Students for Life at Eastern Michigan University applied for student fee funding to host a pro-life display on campus called the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling photo-mural exhibit… . EMU denied the request because they deemed the photos of the aborted babies and the event as too controversial, biased, and one-sided.
As ADF notes in its complaint, EMU policy “prohibit[s] student fee funding for ‘political or ideological’ activities of student organizations.” According to the complaint, this policy was created in response to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Southworth v. Grebe (7th Cir. 1998), which the school interpreted as prohibiting the use of mandatory student activity fees for “political or ideological activities.” But in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit’s ruling and held that “[t]he First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech,provided that the program is viewpoint neutral” (emphasis added).
This clash between EMU’s policy and the First Amendment was exacerbated by the fact that the policy was selectively enforced:
EMU officials had been inconsistent with their funding guidelines and had allocated the same funds to political and ideological speech discussing “welfare rights, women’s and abortion rights, religion, student activist training, and race-conscious causes, just to name a few.”
In initially denying Students for Life funding, EMU plainly violated the group’s right to freedom of speech by discriminating against these students based on their viewpoint.
EMU’s recent promise to fund Students for Life’s event despite its controversial nature is important not only to comply with the requirements of the First Amendment but also to further the purpose of the university. In Healy v. James (1972), the Supreme Court called the American college campus a “marketplace of ideas.” In Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Court explained how viewpoint-neutral disbursement of mandatory student activity fees universities contributes to that marketplace: colleges use student activity fees to “enhance the educational experience of its students by … stimulating advocacy and debate on diverse points of view.”
This outcome marks a significant and necessary change to protect EMU students’ rights to freely express themselves on a wide range of topics, and we applaud this result.
Image: Bruce T. Halle Library at Eastern Michigan University – Wikimedia Commons