The University of North Texas’s student government passed a resolution that calls into question its commitment to allocate student funds on a viewpoint-neutral basis — and it’s not the only student government to have shirked its First Amendment obligations by doing so.
On April 13, UNT’s Student Government Association unanimously passed the resolution, which catalogs the ways in which “the Trans community at UNT feels threatened, unsafe, and harassed.” The resolution comes in the wake of a controversial campus appearance by Jeffrey Younger, a Republican state legislative candidate. Younger’s appearance at the event, titled “Criminalize Child Transitions,” ended 40 minutes before its allotted time after protesters made so much noise Younger could not be heard.
The resolution states: “Any UNT Student Organization that engages in harassment, discrimination, hate crimes, and/or violation of UNT policy through transphobic posts, statements, and actions be immediately suspended to protect the mental, emotional, and physical health of transgender students at UNT.”
The SGA’s resolution goes too far at a public institution bound by the First Amendment.
The resolution does not include an SGA enforcement mechanism, but rather asks the university to suspend any group that engages in such speech.
Students are free to speak out against the Younger event or his arguments. But the SGA’s resolution goes too far at a public institution bound by the First Amendment.
The resolution is also troubling because the SGA has the authority to “grant funding to students for conferences or programming, promote other student organization’s programs, as well as host University-wide events.” At the very least, the resolution suggests that the SGA may take a viewpoint-based approach to evaluating student group funding.
The SGA is responding to students who report feeling unsafe on campus. But any such response must not — and, at a public university like UNT, cannot — violate the First Amendment rights of other students or student groups on campus. The resolution threatens to do just that by chilling the speech of student groups, especially political student groups, who may face repercussions for speech that could be construed as transphobic. (To be clear, if a student’s conduct targeting an LGBTQ student met the threshold for discriminatory harassment as identified by the Supreme Court in 1999 decision Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, it would lawfully be subject to discipline.)
While there is no current enforcement mechanism in the resolution, the call for suspension is explicit, and a copy of the resolution was sent to UNT leadership. The passage of the resolution also suggests SGA may soon change its tack when it comes to approving funding for new student organizations by evaluating them on a viewpoint basis. If so, it would not be alone.
Elsewhere, George Washington University’s student senate passed a resolution earlier this week calling on the university to suspend the campus chapter of the Young America’s Foundation after a series of social media posts about trans issues. And in November, the Wichita State student government signaled it wanted to delegate to other branches of the university its authority to recognize student groups after the Student Government Assocation’s Supreme Court reversed the student senate’s decision to deny official recognition to a campus chapter of Turning Point USA. Last August, California Institute of Technology’s graduate student government implemented new funding guidelines, requiring determining funding for invited speakers based on the university’s “values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” In the past few years, there have also been several examples of student governments denying recognition to clubs based on clubs’ viewpoints.
These actions chill student speech. If the resolutions were simply restricted to condemning the speech of the groups in question, it would be an example of “more speech.” But any time that speech is accompanied by a call to defund, suspend, or otherwise silence a group, it crosses the line into censorship.
The solution is for student government associations to address this issue at its source by adopting explicitly viewpoint-neutral criteria for evaluating and funding student groups. FIRE has created a model policy for allocating student fees in a viewpoint-neutral fashion.
Additionally, resolutions must avoid punitive measures like suspension or de-recognition. After all, numerous ideologically diverse student groups signify a vibrant discourse on campus. Student governments are welcome to criticize student groups. But they must know that when they go beyond mere criticism, their actions carry implicit — and sometimes explicit — threats against the student groups they oversee.
We urge the UNT Student Government Association to reject the unfortunate and emerging trend we have seen at campuses across the country and reconsider its request for the university to suspend student groups based on constitutionally protected speech.