Victory for Freedom of Speech and Religious Liberty at Northern Illinois U; Political and Religious Organizations Finally Get Equal Treatment

April 28, 2011

After months of delay and pressure from FIRE, Northern Illinois University (NIU) has finally given political and religious organizations access to student activity fee funding. In 2010, NIU’s Student Association brazenly flouted Supreme Court precedent by discriminating against all such groups, maintaining extensive double standards, and denying recognition altogether to NIU Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) on two separate occasions.

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.

On November 7, the Senate then issued hopelessly vague definitions of "political" and "religious" groups that guaranteed unconstitutional double standards and inexplicable decisions. For instance, Advocates for Choice, Campus Antiwar Network, Consumer Education Society, PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), Students for Life (NIU), Vegetarian Education Group, and Women’s Rights Alliance were eligible for funding as "Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support" groups, yet funding was denied to the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife and the Model United Nations, an academic simulation of the UN. Similarly, the Baha’i Club, dedicated to discussion of the Baha’i faith, was eligible as a "Diversity and Cultural" organization, while Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel, Latter Day Saint Student Association, Muslim Students Association, Newman Catholic Student Center, Pagan Student Association, and many more were not eligible for funding.

The new definitions even prohibited a student group from receiving student activity fee funding funding if any of its activities resulted in any individual, anywhere, "petitioning Federal, State, or Local legislative or executive bodies for policies advocated by that group"—amazingly violating the First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

FIRE wrote NIU President John G. Peters on November 18, explaining that the Student Association Senate is bound by the First Amendment and that NIU is obligated to step in when the Senate fails to uphold students’ rights. FIRE’s letter reminded NIU of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents v. Southworth (2000), which established that public universities like NIU are required to grant political, religious, and other expressive organizations equal access—on a viewpoint-neutral basis—to student fee funding distributed to other student organizations.

On December 5, the Senate denied SSDP’s petition for recognition a second time. The next day, FIRE took SSDP’s case to the public. Just four days later, NIU Associate Vice President John R. Jones III finally notified SSDP that NIU administrators would overrule the Senate and grant full recognition to SSDP as an advocacy group. NIU also announced that a task force would revise NIU’s funding and recognition policies.

On Tuesday, April 26, Senate Speaker Austin M. D. Quick notified FIRE that the Senate had passed a new funding policy. It requires that "[a]ll SA officials involved in the budget processes must make all decisions in a viewpoint-neutral fashion. Viewpoint-neutral fashion is defined as a decision made in accordance with any procedural requirements for making that decision and without consideration of the viewpoint being expressed by the recipient of the funds."

To be clear: No student government at a public university may reduce or deny student activity fee funding to a student group because its expression might trouble, offend, or embarrass the student government. Nor may the student government base recognition or funding decisions on a group’s political or religious views.

NIU now needs to edit its Budget Training Workshop PowerPoint presentation (.PPT) and other documents accordingly. Slide 11 of the PowerPoint still states that religious and political organizations will not be funded.

FIRE will be watching to ensure that NIU maintains viewpoint neutrality and meets its constitutional obligations.

Schools:  Northeastern Illinois University

Cases:  Northern Illinois University: Unequal Treatment of Political and Religious Student Organizations