There have been many disputes in recent years on university campuses over the distribution of student fees to groups that hold religious or conservative views.
Christian clubs, for example, have been denied funding because of misinterpretations of the First Amendment and the notion of “separation of church and state.”
Experts on the topic at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, have posted online a complete guide to student fees.
They point out that the U.S. Supreme Court has established in at least two key cases that universities must exercise “viewpoint neutrality” in the funding of campus groups.
In Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia in 1995, the court ruled that the University of Virginia violated the free speech rights of student journalists producing a Christian campus newspaper when it denied the paper funding because of its “religious” views, FIRE noted.
In the 2000 case Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, the Supreme Court ruled that individual students have the right not to pay fees that fund groups they find objectionable if the university distributed money in a “viewpoint discriminatory” manner.
“In these case taken together Rosenberger and Southworth the court identified a vital constitutional principle that always must decide student fee disputes at public colleges and universities: a viewpoint neutrality that stands opposed to its opposite, viewpoint discrimination,” FIRE said.
Now, however, some students at the University of Colorado want to censor speakers on campus based on their viewpoint or at least deprive the hosting clubs of student fees.
The Daily Camera newspaper of Boulder reported three CU students seeking the office of “tri-executives” are working on a rule change that will allow the student government to deny student fees for speakers who engage in “hate speech.”
They would define it as speech that “threatens or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.”
The three students want to change the bylaws of the Student Organization Allocation Committee, which distributes student-fees revenue.
Student candidate Lauren Goldfarb said the issue arose after a campus visit by Milo Yiannopoulos, a libertarian who has been the object of protests by left-leaning student and other groups.
“I felt like we were funding someone who didn’t represent the student body,” Goldfarb told the newspaper.
“As a board, even when not everyone wanted to fund Milo coming to campus, it was hard because the code has no qualifications about what kind of people can come to campus,” she said.
Fellow student candidate Owen McLaughlin said the incident highlighted a shortcoming in the bylaws.
“No matter how extreme they were, SOAC, as it stands, would have literally no standing to deny the request.”
The newspaper said the students want “the final say over which speakers met the definition” of hate speech.
The third member of the ticket of candidates for student office, Jared Moya, said clubs still could have whomever they chose; they would just have to pay the costs themselves.
CU officials told the newspaper there would be no comment on the proposal.
FIRE’s guide, however, noted: “Viewpoint neutrality is a well-known concept in First Amendment law. It stands for the idea that when government actions implicate the speech rights of groups and indviduals, the actions must be done in an even-handed way. They may not discriminate based on the message advocated.
“Thus, a city has the power to prohibit all speakers from using bullhorns to amplify their speeches on public streets at three o’clock in the morning. If the city allows Republicans to make such speeches at that hour, however, it may not forbid Democrats from doing so too.”
It continued, “‘Viewpoint discrimination’ occurs when the government uses its power to advance on person’s opinion over another’s in such matters as religion, politics and belief.”
On campuses, it explained, the rule is: “A public campus, in distributing student fees, must state and follow a clear policy that prohibits making funding decisions on the basis of a group’s viewpoint. It must require student government (or other) officials to give written reasons why they are denying a grant. … Crucially, it must state nonideological standards that spell out very clearly what qualifications an applicant must meet to receive funding. … Such safeguards might include objective standards that remove discretion from student government leaders.”