In a victory for free speech advocates, it has been confirmed that University of California officials reimbursed a student Republican group at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) for expenses incurred hosting for an on-campus lecture. The university’s student government initially balked at paying the $1800 for the conservative author’s May 26th appearance, simply because they didn’t like what he had to say. The College Republicans (CRs) turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. It was all the help they needed. “UCSB’s student government utterly refused to fulfill its constitutional duty to be viewpoint-neutral in its funding decisions,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Thankfully, UCSB has finally rectified this error and saved itself from an embarrassing and inevitably doomed fight against the First Amendment.”
University officials had no choice. On March 22, 2000, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned a ruling by the 7th Circuit Court, which had declared mandatory student fees to be unconstitutional. Southworth v. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System was a case filed by three students at the University of Wisconsin who contended that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights to use portions of their student fees to fund ideological or political activities with which they disagreed. The students were ostensibly offended that the University was funding activities by groups with multi-cultural, environmental, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered agendas.
Speaking for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that collecting and allocating fees was constitutional, even as he made it clear that such a system in and of itself was not a constitutional requirement. The court also noted that such fees could be used by student groups to fund any activity, that those organizations cannot be denied funding based on their viewpoint, and that it makes no difference whether the activity takes place on or off campus. “We conclude that the University of Wisconsin may sustain the extracurricular dimensions of its programs by using mandatory student fees with viewpoint neutrality as the operational principle,” Kennedy wrote.
Thus in a bit of irony, a failed case brought by students offended by progressive ideology was the basis by which the UC Santa Barbara student government was forced to fund a conservative university event.
Last May, the UCSB College Republicans requested $2000 to host Horowitz. UCSB’s Associated Students Finance Board denied the request. A May 3rd email from Board member Lucy Nguyen explained that the funding was denied “because the board believes that the dialogue between Horowitz and UCSB students will not be a constructive one.” College Republicans appealed the ruling to the Associated Students Legislative Council (ASLC) and a hearing was held on May 4th. The minutes of that meeting demonstrate both the prejudice and constitutional ignorance of some of the participants. To wit:
- “An appeal was mentioned about David Horowitz. While it is important to maintain freedom of speech for all organizations on campus and financial policy, expressing opinions that this speaker in particular embodies and demonizing other organizations is wrong.”
- “To walk on campus after hearing this person speak, this person was brought to this campus 3 years ago and this is about student fees that are paid by the students. He can come to this campus and express freedom of speech, but using student fees to make this happen, please tell me where I can withdraw student my fees, even one cent that’s funded to this, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
- “We were on campus when he last came to speak and I had a lot of friends that felt really unsafe on campus. As a Jewish person, I want to maintain the safety of the student body. Free speech is important but not limitless, e.g. You cannot yell fire in a crowded building.”
- “This is about safety and this is an unsafe speaker…Islamophobia had been on the rise and we don’t think it’s safe to talk about these issues and is promoting negative imagery about these groups.”
- “The problem with David Horowitz coming is that he incites hates. I don’t want to spend money for video, it’s all over the Internet just to bash people and he uses these speeches as a tool. I don’t see why student fees should go to filming.”
Members of the board sought ways around funding the event, such as contending that campus safety trumped freedom of speech, wondering aloud whether they could deny funding based on the event itself rather than its context, or whether David Horowitz’s lecture could be construed as a “hate crime.” Advised that they would be sued for attempting any of the above ploys, the board relented. They also voted to hide the Finance Board’s discussion from the public record.
The ASLC then voted to fund $1100 for the event, but that amount was reduced to $800 in a re-vote after an assembled audience shouted, “You are sponsoring Islamophobia and racism on this campus,” and “Who on this board is representing the Muslim community?” In a June 7 email to UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang, FIRE noted the discrepancy. “College Republicans would have been allocated $1,100 rather than $800 were it not for the viewpoint discrimination by the Associated Students Legislative Council. FIRE again asks UCSB to intervene to ensure that, at the least, the College Republicans are allocated the $300 that was denied due to hostility to Horowitz and his protected expression.” On June 21, campus council Nancy Greenan Hamill wrote back to FIRE, assuring them that the College Republicans had been allocated the entire $1100. But records kept by the CR showed they’d received nothing.
For months, UCSB administrators provided FIRE and CR President Steven Begakis with bogus information, until UCSB assistant dean of students Katya Armistead produced this document, noting that UCSB deposited $1800 into the RCs’ account. “The months it took for UCSB administrators to get their own story straight just compounded the problem caused by the student government,” said FIRE vice president of programs Adam Kissel. “UCSB ultimately did the right thing by making the CRs whole, but it must now take steps to ensure that its student government never again violates the First Amendment rights of a student organization.”
Whether or not they do so remains to be seen. Ronald D. Rotunda, distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University, has his doubts. “They made it pretty clear–that is, the people protesting the speaker said, ‘We don’t like him because he’s conservative and we feel threatened by it,’” said Rotunda. “That’s them objecting to the speaker because of his view. This is becoming quite common throughout academia to basically discourage, in some cases, threaten, or make it more difficult for views that are not politically correct,” he added.
Which is precisely why it’s important to challenge such pervasive nonsense. FIRE, the Freedom Center and the College Republicans deserves enormous credit for their tireless efforts on that behalf. “Student organizations that are discriminated against now know that FIRE will expose such injustices to the public,” Kissel warned. “All student organizations deserve a level playing field.”