When it comes to ending viewpoint discrimination against political and religious student organizations, we’re happy to report that sometimes history repeats itself.
FIRE supporters may remember our 2010 case at Northern Illinois University (NIU), when the student group Students for Sensible Drug Policy was subjected to discriminatory funding rules that prevented the group, by nature of its mission, from being eligible for student activity funding. If not, here’s a quick summary:
SSDP was first considered for recognition on October 24, 2010, as a "Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support" group because it advocates "that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society" and seeks "to reduce the harms caused by drug abuse and drug policies." After extensive inquiries into the specific nature of the group’s viewpoint, the Student Association Senate denied recognition to SSDP but offered it a chance to be recognized as a "political" group, which would have rendered it ineligible for funding under the old policy.
The case at NIU, fortunately, came to a happy end. After hearing from FIRE, NIU’s Student Association passed new funding guidelines ensuring viewpoint neutrality in student organization funding. Now, a remarkably similar script has played out on Northern Virginia Community College’s (NOVA’s) Alexandria campus. Fortunately, that same happy outcome was secured following FIRE’s intervention.
At NOVA, the fully recognized SSDP chapter sought permission in February 2012 to attend a national conference. SSDP President Chris McMillon, however, was told by NOVA administrator Patricia Gordon that the college was "unable to fund any student organizations with a political agenda." As proof, Gordon pointed SSDP to NOVA’s Administrative Services Procedures Manual, section 30.0.1 of which stated:
The [Virginia Community College System] does not authorize or recognize private clubs, private associations, social fraternities, or social sororities; nor do VCCS colleges provide funding for student clubs or organizations with a political or religious affiliation.
This is plainly wrong and unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court has made clear on multiple occasions. In Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000), the Court stated that "[w]hen 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." Previously, in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995), the Court had stated that "[f]or 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." NOVA’s unconstitutional, viewpoint-discriminatory policies didn’t just put SSDP at risk, but also other religious and political organizations at NOVA — including the Muslim Student Association and Students for a Democratic Society, which may have found their funding eligibility similarly threatened if it hadn’t been already.
FIRE asked NOVA to revise this unconstitutional policy in accordance with the First Amendment rights of student groups like SSDP. Fortunately we can report that the college will do so. As Virginia Community College System (VCCS) System Counsel Rita W. Beale wrote, NOVA’s prohibition on funding for religious and political groups (see the bolded language quoted earlier) was not, in fact, reflective of VCCS policy. (Indeed, it wasn’t; the VCCS policy manual does not mandate viewpoint discrimination in this regard.) Beale wrote that NOVA’s policy was "most likely outdated," likely predating Rosenberger and Southworth, and told FIRE that NOVA "indicates it will remove or revise this language from its policy and not rely on it in its current form."
It is a little concerning that NOVA may have been using such outdated and unconstitutional policy language for such a long time; Southworth, the more recent of the Court’s two rulings on student fees, was settled a dozen years ago, after all. Nonetheless, we’re glad that NOVA is correcting its error, and that groups like SSDP, and any other religious or political groups in existence or that are interested in seeking recognition, will no longer be disenfranchised by NOVA policy. The First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas that is the college campus demand no less.