The ‘No Viewpoint’ Viewpoint: University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire’s Campaign Against Students’ Rights

April 27, 2005

In a disturbing decision last month, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) Student Senate decided to prohibit student groups from receiving student-fee funding for activities that “endorse a particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint.” FIRE issued a press release today about this blatant disregard for students’ First Amendment rights. Furthermore, the decision took place in light of an ongoing and contentious debate involving a proposed “ban” on students’ religious activities from being eligible for fulfilling the student service-learning requirement at UWEC.

Given this case (and cases at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the University of Oregon, and potentially at Princeton University), we must ask: When will universities realize that they cannot delegate their duty to protect their students’ rights to student officials who apparently do not understand what viewpoint neutrality, freedom of expression, and freedom of association entail? At UWEC, however, it is becoming quite clear that both faculty and student administrators on campus have been particularly hostile to religious viewpoints and have attempted to use baseless concerns about Establishment Clause violations as justification for restricting students’ organizational and service learning activities.

The confusion over student-fee funding distribution began with campus debates about the funding of a controversial student magazine, The Flip Side, and was compounded by the proposed restrictions on religious service learning. These debates revealed that UWEC lacked a clear understanding of students’ rights and the university’s responsibilities under federal and state law. For example, during The Flip Side funding debates, the Student Senate finance director was quoted multiple times as saying that The Flip Side and other groups had to prove itself to be “ideologically neutral” in order to receive funding. Furthermore, he made a remarkable and revealing statement that the Student Senate wanted “to exclude any groups that would be religious in nature, political in nature or anything that would have a political agenda [from being funded through student segregated fees].” After FIRE’s December letter explaining how implementing such a policy would mean that the university would be “violating its own responsibility to be viewpoint neutral by imposing its own viewpoint…on protected expression,” the Student Senate eventually decided to fund The Flip Side. A month later, however, the Student Senate went through with the recent unconstitutional funding policy change that is clearly and unlawfully discriminatory toward students who engage in expressive religious and political activities.

With regards to the concern specifically over religious activities, both FIRE and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) wrote UWEC that allowing students to engage in religious activities either through student organizations or to fulfill the university’s service learning requirement would in no way violate the Establishment Clause. FIRE wrote in December:

[T]he Establishment Clause does not require the university to exclude religious activity from its service learning program. Quite the opposite. The Establishment Clause explicitly permits even the subsidy of religious activity if the purpose of the program itself is not religious. For example, the state must provide religious student groups equal access to student activity fee funds (see Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)) and may even provide educational vouchers to explicitly religious schools (see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)). If UWEC decides to proceed with such a ban it must be aware that it does so under no obligation from federal law. UWEC may also want to consider that such a ban could exclude many worthwhile programs from consideration, including Alcoholics Anonymous, the YMCA, Teen Challenge, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, various Boys and Girls Clubs and many, many others.

Subsequently, the university removed any mention of the Establishment Clause and amended the proposed “ban” to restrict not just certain religious, but also certain political activities from being eligible for fulfilling the service-learning requirement. FIRE has learned, however, that in a decision made yesterday by UWEC’s University Senate, the political restrictions have been removed and the proposed service-learning policy once again limits only religious activities. FIRE has also learned that administrators still believe that to permit service learning involving religious expression constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state.

The Director of Service Learning, Donald Mowry, has been themost vocal proponent of the religious service-learning restrictions. At thestart of the debate in October, 2004, The Spectator reportedthat while Mowry has argued that many forms of service in religious communitiesor organizations cannot qualify as legitimate service learning projects, he hasadamantly defended other activities, such as walking dogs. When criticsquestioned how dog walking could be a “legitimate” form of service learning,Mowry was quoted as arguing, “I’ve had many students who realize oncethey walk dogs that… believe it or not …it is a societal issue, that it isa societal problem.”

Well, believe it or not, viewpoint discrimination andarbitrary censorship of students have also become a societal problem—especiallyat UWEC. Unfortunately,instead of recognizing the importance of religious service in the educationaland professional experience of many of UWEC’s students, Mowry and othersupporters of the restrictions on religious activity are attempting toimplement such double standards concerning the “legitimacy” of service learningactivities into official university policy. Meanwhile, the Student Senate has statedpublicly that its own unconstitutional amendment to UWEC’s student activityfunding policy was a “victory.”

Infringing upon the rights of one student group’s freedom ofexpression was bad enough. But to restrict all expressive student groups’viewpoints—that’s just an absurd abuse of authority that opens the door toarbitrary censorship. Any student organizations at UWEC that have been deniedfunding because of the illiberal and nonsensical student-funding amendmentshould contact FIRE immediately. FIRE will also continue to monitor the service-learningdebate.

Schools:  University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire