… and gets the university dragged into federal court facing a lawsuit it has no chance of winning. (Hat Tip – FIRE)
By Chuck Norton
Wayne State University in Michigan is being sued by a student group represented by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) for unlawful religious and viewpoint discrimination.
ADF’s Press Release contains some of the details.
The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the school’s student fee policy, which precludes student groups with religious viewpoints from benefits that are extended to student groups with nonreligious views.
Andrea Bezaire, president of WSU Students for Life, submitted a budget request to WSU’s Budget Committee to help fund the group’s Pro-Life Week 2008 events. The committee denied the request “because of the spiritual and religious programming references in the cover letter.”
In Bezaire’s appeal of the denial, she removed all religious references in order to meet the budget committee’s demands. Even so, the university replied by again denying the group’s entire budget request, with some student council members stating that the subject matter of the group’s events was inappropriate and would greatly offend women who had an abortion.
The lawsuit also challenges a reservation policy which WSU used to deny the group access to a room because the university officials found the proposed pro-life event to be “unsuitable.”
Wayne State University’s written policy states:
Funds (event, travel, and office supplies) you receive from Student Council are considered public funds. Therefore they cannot be used for – 1.) Political advocacy 2.) To advance religion
The ADF’s brief makes it clear that even after religious references were removed, student council members stated before the vote that they did not want to vote the pro-life group any funds because they didn’t like the views of the pro-life group and that such an event might offend women who had an abortion.
I have news for the Student Council of Wayne State University and it’s chancellor; student group funding must be content and viewpoint neutral which means if a student group wants to produce an event to oppose abortion, have a campus crusade for Christ, and cooperate with the College Republicans to ask students to vote for Republicans who are pro-life, the university is obligated by law to treat them no differently from any student group that asked for funding for any other activity such as a student group who wants to have a tennis tournament.
The law was broken and the pro-life group had its rights violated when they were asked to remove the religious references from their funding request. The result of the resubmitted request demonstrated that not only was there unlawful religious discrimination involved in the denial of the funds, but unlawful viewpoint discrimination as well.
The federal case law is crystal clear in cases such as these:
This case is a perfect example of a violation of the constitutional principle of viewpoint neutrality as explicated by the Supreme Court in Rosenberger vs. Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995). In that case, the Court ruled that the University of Virginia violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech by refusing to fund a student paper based on the paper’s religious viewpoint. The Court wrote in Rosenberger, ‘The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.’ If the university charges students fees, it is required to distribute them on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
Likewise, in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System vs. Southworth (2000), the Court upheld the viewpoint neutrality principle, allowing the university to collect mandatory fees so long as those fees were distributed on a viewpoint-neutral basis. The Court wrote:
‘Viewpoint neutrality is the justification for requiring the student to pay the fee in the first instance and for ensuring the integrity of the program’s operation once the funds have been collected’.
I quoted FIRE directly because their explanation of case law that applies in this situation is spot on. When I was Chief Justice of IUSB Student Government I authored judicial reports that referenced cases such as Rosenberger. If I were the Chief Justice at Wayne State, this is exactly the case law I would have quoted and based my ruling upon.
What I find most amusing is that while most cases of such blatant illegal discrimination by a university is in violation of its own regulations, in this case the University’s own written policy is clearly unconstitutional by well established and understood federal case law standards.
How is this possible? How could such an obviously illegal policy be allowed to exist, and how could it be enforced; especially after Penn State, Temple University and Georgia Tech have all recently lost lawsuits to the Alliance Defense fund for this or similar types of illegal discrimination?
Part of the answer comes from a student’s posted comment to the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the lawsuit by a student, who I would wager is a member of the Wayne State Student Council:
I attend Wayne State and I have no doubt the Students for Life group had their budget rejected for legitimate reasons. Much of their literature involves religious references. On top of that, all student organizations are prohibited for using university funds for t-shirts and snacks. It is in the budget handbook all student orgs are required to overview at the beginning of the school year. They are extremists and this is nothing more than a publicity stunt. http://doso.wayne.edu/financialforms/reference/Online-Budget-Workshop.ppt#259,4,Prohibited
Do students leave high school with this kind of hostility towards religious people or even those who are pro-life? Do student’s leave high school with no regard or understanding of what “freedom of speech” means? In a word, No. Students learn such hostility and ignorant attitudes from radicalized undergraduate course faculty and administrators, which in this day and age is in no short supply.
There is little doubt that the pro-life students tried multiple appeals to Wayne State University’s administration to remedy to this illegal discrimination, yet the administration let this come to a lawsuit they have no chance of winning. Why?
Wayne State has a law school on the campus which no doubt has several First Amendment case law experts. I have taken three courses at IUSB that cover First Amendment Case Law and I am well versed in the precedent so it is not like this area of litigation is obscure. All someone in the administration would have had to do was pickup the phone and talk to experts they have right on campus or Wayne State’s administration could have consulted their own legal experts when the illegal policy was first crafted. Is it incompetence or do university officials simply have no reason to care how many times they break the law because it will be the taxpayer who pays the bill? Odds are those who broke the law have nothing to fear as far as personal monetary consequences are concerned. They make the policy that suits their own ignorant and hostile attitudes and let others worry about the consequences. Is this what we should expect from college administrators who make six figure salaries? Perhaps it is time to do as California has begun to do, and pass new laws to hold university administrators themselves to account when student’s rights are violated.
Wayne State University is named after General Anthony Wayne who was a friend of George Washington. Wayne was a devout Episcopalian and was an active member of his church. The actions of his namesake would make him rollover in his graves; both of them.