KINGSTON, R.I., Oct. 12, 2018 — When the student government at the University of Rhode Island refused to fund certain student organizations, a diverse coalition of groups got together to protect their expressive rights. Campus chapters of the College Republicans, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, ACLU, and BridgeUSA teamed up to take down unconstitutional policies that prevented political and religious student organizations from receiving student activity fee funding.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education worked on behalf of the groups to ensure that funding for campus organizations is applied in a consistent, constitutional, and viewpoint-neutral manner. Several of the groups were denied funding in the past year because the student government deemed them “political.”
Before FIRE’s intervention, the URI Student Senate maintained policies that allowed senators to deny funding to organizations they perceived as having a religious mission or supporting a political candidate. The Student Senate inaccurately claimed that providing these organizations with funding would jeopardize the student government’s status as “a nontaxable nonprofit organization.” FIRE wrote to the Student Senate in May to alert the student government president to the unconstitutionality of its policies and to offer support in drafting new language.
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FIRE’s letter explained why the student government’s nonprofit status does not prevent it from funding political or religious groups, and why its policies and practices led to arbitrary funding decisions based on senators’ perceptions of each group. For example, some religious organizations went unfunded in past years while another received funding after re-classifying itself as “cultural” instead of “religious.” The nonpartisan BridgeUSA and Students for Sensible Drug Policy were deemed political and denied funding while other groups engaged in political advocacy were funded.
“Student governments can’t arbitrarily decide which organizations are worthy of funding and which are not,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation. “There’s a name for that: viewpoint discrimination.”
The Supreme Court of the United States has long held that public institutions violate student First Amendment rights when they deny student activity fee funding to an organization based on its message or viewpoint. As a public institution, URI is required to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights. Although URI vests control over student organization funding decisions in the Student Senate, that does not absolve the university of its legal obligations.
In response to FIRE, the Student Senate promised to review its policies over time, but failed to provide assurances requested by FIRE that the student groups would not be unconstitutionally denied funding again this fall. FIRE then wrote to URI President David Dooley in September, asking him to intervene and to guarantee that no student organization would be subject to the Student Senate’s unconstitutional practice this semester.
On Sept. 20, the administration and Student Senate leaders wrote to inform FIRE of impending legislative reforms to be voted on by the Senate to address FIRE’s concerns.
“URI’s Student Senate had unknowingly been violating the Constitution for a while, and in so doing, degraded the status and prosperity of the student organizations that make URI great,” said Sam Foer, president of the campus chapters of the ACLU and BridgeUSA. “Our coalition reached out to FIRE because students deserve the ability to form groups and associations on campus without student government representatives determining whether our opinions deserve equal treatment.”
On Oct. 3, the Student Senate voted to remove the barriers to funding for religious and political organizations, and to stop arbitrarily categorizing groups as political or religious in nature.
“FIRE commends URI’s Student Senate for enacting the policy reforms necessary to ensure student organizations have the opportunity to seek funding through an equitable, viewpoint-neutral process,” Beck-Coon said. “We will continue to work with student groups at URI to ensure they are able to access funding regardless of their message, mission, or the content of their advocacy.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org