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Liberty Requires Tough Choices: The Student Funding Dilemma

Kanisha Parthasarathy is a FIRE summer intern. Allocating money to student groups is a tricky game. For many colleges, the amount of money given to groups is not increasing at the same rate as the number of student groups vying for recognition and funding. Funding boards usually solve this problem by creating guidelines to determine how much money a student group gets. The problem arises when these rules are applied without viewpoint neutrality, a requirement for public colleges’ funding boards established by the Supreme Court in Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth (2000). FIRE has seen violations of viewpoint neutrality happen before. In 2010, Northern Illinois University’s (NIU’s) Student Association Senate arbitrarily designated groups as “political” or “advocacy” organizations—categorizations that determined whether students’ groups would be deemed eligible for funding or not. The case in point involved the organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a group that applied to be recognized as an “advocacy” group and receive school funding, but was denied. Instead, the student government offered SSDP recognition as a “political” group, making it ineligible for funding. This decision was especially problematic because other types of policy-oriented groups—like pro-life and pro-choice groups—qualified as “advocacy” groups. Perhaps, to give the student government the benefit of the doubt, they were having difficulty funding a large number of groups with limited resources. Even under this light, however, the decision was unconstitutional, as NIU is a public institution and must abide by the First Amendment’s guarantee to viewpoint neutrality and to the precedents set by the Supreme Court in Rosenberger and Southworth. After a letter to NIU’s president and a press release from FIRE, NIU gave full recognition to SSDP, and the student governmenteventually changed its unconstitutional funding policy.  Issues of funding often arise when newspapers publish material that doesn’t appeal to the funding board. In May 2012, at the University of Memphis (UM), the student newspaper faced a budget cut of $25,000 that was accompanied by a statement from the dean of students which questioned “whether the paper is really serving the students of the campus.” The dean’s statement indicated that the paper’s budget decrease was based on the content it produced. FIRE appealed to UM’s president and the decision was reversed. Similarly, in November 2001, The Koala, a student humor magazine at the University of California at San Diego, was threatened with derecognition after it published photos of another student that accompanied a satirical article. FIRE worked with the media to induce the university to drop the charges. These examples show how easily schools and student funding boards can use their power of the purse to shut down perspectives that they don’t find appealing. This practice isn’t unique to public universities. In May, Johns Hopkins University was the site of another instance of viewpoint discrimination, where the student government denied recognition of a pro-life group because they might make other students “uncomfortable.” Here, the issue wasn’t necessarily one of constitutionality, but rather whether students valued open dialogue about controversial issues over the “right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable.” Luckily, the university supported the group’s right to free expression, and, after a letter from FIRE, the student judiciary committee overturned the decision. As a member of Penn’s student funding board (the Student Activities Council, or SAC), the decision of which groups to recognize and how to allocate funds to over 200 organizations is one that I encounter often. Though private institutions in Pennsylvania aren’t bound by the First Amendment, promises of freedom of association give students the assumption that they can form groups and have equal access to recognition and funding. The Pennbook states: “The University of Pennsylvania, as a community of scholars, affirms, supports and cherishes the concepts of freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly.” This ideal is supported in the SAC Funding Policies (PDF), which reads: “Decisions on whether or not a program or activity is denied funding will not be based on the content of speech or expression of the activity.” While I empathize with students facing the dilemma of prioritization that is inherent to allocating funding, choices that privilege uncontroversial viewpoints over contentious ones not only violate the basic rights of students, but also discredit the funding bodies charged with ensuring equal access to the marketplace of ideas. Because student governments exist as a liaison between the administration and their peers, they should be advocates rather than enemies of student rights. For student governments to have legitimacy, they need to value the civil liberties of all of their classmates and advocate for them to their universities. Institutionalizing these values may require campus level legislation to be passed that reforms the system; however, change could be as simple as reminding students who make these funding decisions that they are the voice of the student body as a whole, rather than select individuals and viewpoints.

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