Today at East Carolina University (ECU), the student group Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) is raising awareness about American drug policy, as well as about the practical uses of legal hemp products. They’re doing so with a little First Amendment help from FIRE, but not much from ECU’s student government.
I say "not much" because, indeed, ECU’s Student Government Association (SGA)—despite its obligation to uphold viewpoint neutrality in distributing student fees for student group events—decided that protecting its public image was more important than funding a "combustible" event that they apparently believe glorifies drug culture.
On March 14, YAL requested $735 in SGA funding for this year’s Hemp Fest event. Part of that request consisted of $150 to purchase an assortment of hemp products available for viewing and testing during Hemp Fest, including rope, clothing, and body care products. (All of these products are legal, by the way.) Little more than a week later, on March 23, YAL was alerted by SGA Treasurer Justin Davis that most of the requested funding had been denied, including the whole of the portion requested for the hemp products. In all, SGA recommended that only $210 be allocated for the event. As Davis’ email stated:
[T]he nature of the event is combustible insofar as the Student Government Association’s reputation is concerned. Appropriations will not risk tarnishing SGA by funding the portion of the request determined necessary for the purchase of hemp products; purchasing these with Appropriations-recommended dollars is hereby expressly prohibited.
While I’m not sure Davis meant to use "combustible" intentionally (I promise, that’s the only 420-related pun you’ll see here), SGA’s decision represented a significant problem. As the Supreme Court has held repeatedly, this kind of blatant viewpoint-based discrimination is unconstitutional. After YAL President Matthew Blackmon contacted FIRE, we contacted SGA, alerting it to its error. As we wrote in our letter:
SGA is obligated to distribute student fees to groups in a viewpoint-neutral manner. See Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) ("For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses."); Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) ("When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.").
Denying funding to YAL because the content of its event is deemed "combustible" or because SGA does not want to "risk tarnishing" its reputation by approving such content violates SGA’s obligation to maintain viewpoint neutrality. Further, SGA has violated its own funding guidelines by declaring after the fact that the funding of events with certain expressive content was "hereby expressly prohibited." As the Supreme Court has shown, and as FIRE has successfully argued at numerous universities throughout the country, this discriminatory treatment is unconstitutional.
FIRE sent its letter to SGA (as well as ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard) on April 11, in advance of YAL’s hearing to appeal SGA’s discriminatory treatment. As Blackmon reported to us, SGA seemed to abandon its viewpoint-based reasons for its partial denial of the requested funding.
I wish the story ended there, and that SGA thought better of things and recommended the extra $150, but it doesn’t. Blackmon also told FIRE that, while SGA didn’t further pursue its viewpoint discrimination against YAL, it now found technical irregularities upon which it could base its decision, among them that YAL’s application was too vague. (I will let Torch readers read the application for themselves and decide.)
YAL, fortunately, was able to pull the extra $150 together from other sources, and is carrying on with Hemp Fest today, complete with a march for drug awareness and what YAL calls patients’ rights. Ironically, in approving YAL’s request for a parade permit and other promotional materials, Davis wrote to Blackmon that "SGA staunchly supports the First Amendment rights of the student body, this organization included." From what FIRE has seen so far, we beg to differ.
FIRE wishes Young Americans for Liberty the best of luck with Hemp Fest today. As for ECU’s Student Government Association, it has yet to clarify—as FIRE requested—that it will not use such viewpoint-based considerations to discriminate against any student groups under its auspices in the future. They’ll be hearing from FIRE again soon on that point, to make sure they know we’re not just blowing smoke here.
OK, I lied—that’s two puns.