Today John R. Jones III, associate vice president of Northern Illinois University, informed Jeremy Orbach, president of the school’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, that NIU’s administration is stepping in to recognize SSDP as a “social justice, advocacy, and support organization,” which means it can use campus facilities and is eligible for activity fee funding. The administration is thereby overriding the Student Association Senate, which twice voted against recognizing SSDP based on vague, constitutionally suspect criteria. In a letter (PDF) to Orbach, Jones writes:
I have made the determination, under the unique circumstances of this case, to administratively recognize SSDP as a student organization at Northern Illinois University. Your application appears to be in order, and the other documentation that I have reviewed is not sufficiently clear to identify a justifiable reason for the denial of such recognition….
In addition to this action, the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management is establishing a task force comprised of University officials and Student Association members to review and revise the recognition and funding processes as they relate to student organizations…
Lastly, the SA is collaborating with the University to develop a more formal training module for use by the Student Association on the applicable legal standards that have been established by the court systems regarding student recognition processes in public university settings.
Jones’ decision came in response to pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has taken up SSDP’s cause, and negative publicity about NIU’s apparent disregard for First Amendment rights. Troubled by that publicity, Brian Troutman, one of nine Student Association senators who voted to recognize SSDP at a meeting on Sunday night (and who were opposed by a majority of 12), wants us to know that “NIU Student Senators Are Not Bad People.” He explains (PDF):
The real problem lies not with the Senators, but with our bylaws. In fact, the Senators who voted against recognizing the SSDP were acting in accordance with those bylaws. Under SA bylaws, organizations that lobby the government or run informational campaigns are considered “political groups”and are ineligible for funding. SSDP clearly falls in this category. When I voted for the SSDP’s recognition as a non-political group, I realized that my vote was not in accordance with the SA bylaws, but I was more concerned about complying with the United States constitution.
Many other Senators were unaware there was any controversy in denying SSDP recognition. To them, they just followed the bylaws like they’re supposed to….Some of the Senators I talked to privately said they agreed with drug policy reform, but needed to follow the bylaws. Previous Senate sessions have not been as strict in applying the bylaws, which is why organizations like the Campus Anti-War Network and Advocates for Choice are not classified as political organizations….
Our bylaws, though I disagree with them, were written with the best of intentions. The reason political groups do not receive funding is based on the belief that students should not be forced to fund groups that they may not agree with. Not allowing the SSDP to put up fliers is a different story. That policy makes absolutely no sense to me.
FIRE has more here.