Student Fee Flop

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Free speech violations manifest themselves in many forms on America’s campuses. Perhaps one of the most frequent—and misunderstood violations—concerns the distribution of student activity fees.

In Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, and Board of Regents of University Wisconsin System v. Southworth, the Supreme Court explained that public universities requiring students to pay student activity fees must ensure that those fees are distributed in a viewpoint-neutral manner. In other words, the university cannot consider a student organization’s mission, goals, or views when allocating the student activity fee funds.

But all too often, universities ignore this constitutional command. Take, for example, the Student Government Board (SGB) at the University of Pittsburgh. The SGB initially denied Students For Life’s request for $1,515 to attend the National Students for Life Conference and the March for Life in Washington D.C. on the grounds that the group was “proselytizing” for its cause. The SGB President’s reasoning was telling:

“The fundamental purpose of this group is to promote an opinion, traditionally that of a religious perspective. Therefore I would disagree with the fundamental existence of the group, and so therefore, it was my opinion that this group is going to proselytize as a lobbying organization.”

Really? And other groups on campus don’t “promote an opinion?” At Pitt, there are thirty-two “Political & Advocacy” student organizations—not including religious groups—that promote a wide array of causes and beliefs and are eligible to receive student activity fee funding. Even the student abortion advocacy group, Campus Women’s Organization, is eligible to receive student activity funds.

The SGB ultimately reversed course after its discriminatory decision was publicized by the student newspaper. But this situation highlights the double-standard that public universities regularly apply to pro-life and religious speech. Indeed, even a Pitt campus activist who opposes SFL’s message recognized this:

I am disturbed by [the President’s] comment that “[…] I would disagree with the fundamental existence of the group”. On first glance, [the President] seems to be saying that he disagrees with the right to free exercise of religion, which seems unamerican to me. More to the point, his support of a denial of funds to this group appears to be censorious. His words, as included in this article, betray a disturbing lack of faith in democracy.

As a woman who volunteers as an escort for Pittsburgh’s Planned Parenthood (where pro-life students regularly protest) I believe all people have a right to voice their opinions publicly, whether this expression is termed “protesting”, “lobbying”, or “proselytizing”. . . .

I take it as an article of faith in the democratic process that all people may enter into the sloppy, messy conversation that is American politics. I believe that it is only through passionate conversation we as a nation can reach a better future. Censorship has no role to play in our democracy, even censorship cloaked as political correctness.

[The President] does pro-choice students no favors by denying pro-life students their voice. By hobbling Student’s for Life’s expression, [The President] is implying that pro-choice students are so ill-equiped to make their case that the Student Government Board must silence their opposition for them, rather than allow the two communities to debate freely.

This conference is a professional development opportunity, an opportunity for Students for Life to make its case heard in our nation’s capital, and a trip which has historically been supported by the Student Government Board. It is a show of bad faith that this group has been denied travel funds, and speaks against the Student Government Board’s commitment to democratic debate.

This student eloquently explains the proper, constitutional role public universities must take with respect to student activity fees, and student expression in general. It’s time university officials started listening.

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5 Responses to “Student Fee Flop”

  1. ADF Alliance Alert » Joseph Martins: Student fee flop Says:

    […] Attorney Joseph Martins writing at the Academic Freedom File: “Take, for example, the Student Government Board (SGB) at the University of Pittsburgh. The […]

  2. Tom Says:

    This kind of censorship is rampant in academia. Witness the vigor with which the debate between neo-Darwinism and intelligent design is stifled by the academic community from elementary schools to graduate schools throughout the land. If the Darwinists are so sure of their case, why not allow both sides to be told? The role of higher education used to be seeking for truth. Nowadays it seems academia has become a bastion of liberal and secular humanist indoctrination.

  3. Kyle Says:

    You’re making a mistake here. It is not the University that allocates these funds from the Student Activities fee. Allocations are made by students elected by their peers. Now, as you’ll see by my email address, I’m a Pitt student. As such, I’m certainly not saying that the election process here is without flaw, but you’re unfairly trying to pin the blame on the university administration. It is important to understand that [the President] frequently mentioned in that quotation is not the University President or any similar official, but our own democratically-elected Student Government Board president.

    This is not an example of institutional free-speech violation, but merely one student’s improper attempt to use his office to promote his personal agenda. He was thwarted by student journalism and the combined voice of several, sometimes contradictory, advocacy student groups.

    • Joseph Martins Says:

      Kyle, I appreciate your thoughtful comment on this issue, as it raises a key point needing further clarification. In short, even though the SGB made the initial allocation decision, the University itself violated the Constitution. I have explained further in my new blog post, “Passing the Buck.” http://wp.me/pzHRq-bB

  4. Passing The Buck « Academic Freedom File Says:

    […] The Buck By Joseph Martins In my recent post, Student Fee Flop, a student at the University of Pittsburgh raised an excellent point that I thought deserved […]

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