The end of student activity groups?

Right-wing Christian student groups are using the courts to attack the legality of student fees and thereby changing the free speech debate on campus.


Ken Rapoza
March 8, 1999 10:07PM (UTC)

"Christians have a choice when confronted with attempts to silence their voices and limit their cultural influence: Saddle up and fight or lay
down and surrender. ADF has chosen to fight to level the playing field.
I'm convinced that if our ideas and practices are accorded equal
protection under law, we will win our part of the culture war because
Scripture promises that evil will never ultimately defeat the gospel or
God's people. But it won't happen overnight. We must dig in for the
long term, build on every victory we can -- no matter how small -- and
never, ever, give up."
-- From "A Vision for America's Future" by Alan Sears, president
of the Alliance Defense Fund.

Last fall, five Christian student groups at Miami University
in Oxford, Ohio, sued their school. They say that the approximately $480
per semester they are required to give to the student fee system goes
to political and ideological groups they oppose. While these conservative student groups maintain that they're only defending their constitutional rights, critics argue that these groups are challenging the very principles of democracy.

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"There are no specific groups that we're objecting to," says Russ Johnson, a senior at Miami and the president of one of the suing groups, For the Love of God. His voice cracks like he knows he shouldn't be divulging too much information before his case goes to court. "The heart of the complaint is that students should have the right not to support groups they disagree with. If citizens had to give tax dollars to the Christian Coalition ... it would be wrong."

Looking over the list of the 120 student activities that received the $350,000 in Miami's activity fund, it is hard to find a forum that groups like Johnson's
might ideologically oppose. There's the Council on Family Relations, which
received $1,290; the International Club, which got $693; Project Fight AIDS
didn't get a dime last semester, but Sista II Sista, a black women's
group open to all students, got $1,413. The rest of the activities relate to sports, health, academics and student government's operational needs. For the Love of God received money, too. Only it received its cash from a separate fund called the Marketplace of Ideas, which was created by university administrators to designate a portion of student fees to religious groups.

Randy Blankenship, the attorney representing the students against Miami,
argues that the case disputes the two-tiered system, not the ideology of any specific groups. On one hand, the general student activity pot is large, while the Marketplace of Ideas is a little under $10,000. Moreover, religious groups are restricted to Marketplace funds, while all other activities can take from both pots. "This is a state school and these are state-mandated fees. Under the First Amendment, the government cannot discriminate under the basis of the viewpoint expressed. So we see this as viewpoint discrimination," Blankenship said.

None of this would be happening if it weren't for a conservative Arizona group called the Alliance Defense Fund. It sent a mass mailing of 45,000 brochures called the "Defunding the Left Action Pak" to students nationwide aimed at attracting interest in the student fee legal debates. The brochure takes potential plaintiffs through a step-by-step procedure on how to sue their school system. Unlike Blankenship, the ADF claims an ideological basis for the fight: "This effort can literally eliminate millions of dollars from those who oppose biblical values, religious freedom and the spread of the gospel," its literature says. ADF has paid for three lawsuits against the student fee system, of which Miami is the third. ADF's annual budget is $5 million -- which comes from private donors as well as a number of conservative groups such as Focus on the Family, Christian Financial concepts and American Family Foundation.

Clint Tolbert, a senior and former president of the Christian fraternity Sigma
Theta Epsilon at Miami, says that while his case is being
financially supported by the Alliance Defense Fund, he's never seen the
"Defunding the Left Action Pak." This isn't about pocketing student fee
money, he says. Sigma Theta always got its money: between $1,000 and $2,000 last semester. "It's a case of equality," Tolbert says. "We have the right to be funded the same way as other activities."

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Scott Phillips, the assistant general counsel at the Alliance Defense
Fund, speaks with the passion of a Southern Baptist minister
when talking about the lawsuits. "We're not opposed to a
system that lets students choose where the money goes. We'd support an
atheist student who didn't want his funds to go to a Christian magazine,"
he says.

Taken at face value, such arguments, couched in the democratic language of free speech, seem fair and reasonable. Campus religious groups want, and should get, equal treatment. At the same time, they don't want their money to go to activities that may promote values they oppose. ADF's plan to both ensure equal treatment and avoid the funding of opposing ideologies leads to one solution: to end student fees as we know them.

Eric Brakken of the Associated Students of Madison, the University of
Wisconsin's student government, believes ADF's definitions of democratic
free speech will ultimately limit what can be debated on college
campuses. He says its attacks are part of a desire to limit the political debates on campus, and that the "Defunding the Left Action Pak" proves his point. His school fought the first legal battle for student fees when a self-described "extreme-right" Christian law student, Scott Southworth, sued the school and won. Southworth and a few other students won by taking the "opposing-view" route. The university appealed.

"This case is so much more than objecting to funding methods, objecting to certain student groups. It's much deeper," Brakken said. "They like to limit the argument to opposing views and separate funding." Brakken argues that there might be professors on campus whose research students oppose and academic departments that don't match students' ethics. "Should I opt out of paying a portion of my tuition because of that?" he asks.

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Judge Diane Wood heard the Wisconsin case and dissented, saying she
feared this could be the end of a student-run tradition that started with
the 1960s free speech movements. "It is commonplace to require the
funding of a neutral forum,"
she wrote. "Taxpayers support
the Mall in Washington which is used by countless speakers with a range
of viewpoints. Though the government is not entitled to require a
citizen to fund the Catholic Church, it is entitled to permit the Pope to
conduct a mass on the Mall ... if the government had to censor the speech
of Mall users to ensure it's not offensive, [it would have to] close the
forum."

For more than 30 years, student governments have managed the activity fee money
of their students. Independent newspapers, literary magazines and social
work all get funded through student fees. "If you are
taking a class and you think a particular speaker would add to the
discussion outside of the classroom, the money is there for that. It
just adds so much to learning," says Robin Hubbard of the Center for
Campus Free Speech.

While Miami University hopes for a ruling in favor of the status quo
later this year, the University of Wisconsin has already asked the
Supreme Court to hear its case against Southworth. If UW loses, it will spell the end of the current student fee system nationwide. So far, neither Miami nor Wisconsin has changed its policies.

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Randy Blankenship will not say whether his case was going to strictly
focus on the way Miami University divides its fee money or whether he and
the other lawyer involved would follow in Scott Southworth's footsteps and argue for the abolition of student fees in general. Rather, he reemphasizes the notion that Christian student groups are being discriminating against in a most un-American way. "In the history of the First Amendment," he says, "Thomas Jefferson said it was evil to let people pay for the viewpoints of others."

"The end goal is to dismantle the fee system," insists Hubbard of the Center for Campus Free Speech. "So no one
will have access to these funds because everyone will be opposing one
view or another. They'd love for students to have to look off-campus for
activity money."

And where might that lead? Wildlife Groups funded by Exxon? Vegan groups
funded by ADM, "Supermarket to the World"?

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Private citizens groups have generally won Supreme Court cases against public entities trying to enforce speech with which the groups disagree. A 1995 case in Boston went against a group of homosexual men who wanted to march in a private St. Patrick's Day parade but were denied by the parade marshals. In the
first round, the state ruled against the veterans in charge and said they
had to allow the gay men into the march. But when the vets took the case
to the Supreme Court for round two, with Alliance Defense Fund legal help, Massachusetts'
rule was overturned and the gay group lost.

ADF's first campus lawsuit was filed that same year. A student of the
University of Virginia was denied money from activity fees to publish a
Christian newspaper. The court ruled in favor of the Christian student, saying all viewpoints should have access to the forum funded by the
mandatory fees. That ruling led schools such as Miami University to create
their present two-tier systems. Ever since then, public colleges have
become targets in similar lawsuits. The ruling stated that religious
groups can get activity money so long as they are not proselytizing,
which the groups say steps in the way of church-state separation.

"There are two types of free speech," declares ADF's Scott Phillips.
"And when it comes down to private speech, you can't be forced to pay for
it if the speech violates your beliefs."

At the heart of the conflict are two dueling belief systems, both in agreement that college is more than the classroom and student activities more than sporting events. While student fees almost never constitute more than a tiny percentage of a student's overall university payment, the groups that such fees support often have an indelible influence on both the tenor of campus life and student beliefs. Even some conservative pundits have registered their concern that dismantling the student fee system will have unfortunate effects on the free currency of ideas on college campuses. George Will in the Washington Post called it a "recipe for an administrative nightmare, and an incentive for universities to withdraw from funding any group potentially offensive to anyone." Among the student population, there seems to be strong support for keeping the system in place. Roughly 74 student organizations statewide signed a legal brief to support the University of Wisconsin in order to convince the Supreme Court to keep allowing all students to have equal access to the student fees, without moral evaluation.

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Yet even such opposition doesn't faze the crusaders at Alliance Defense Fund. They seem prepared for a long, hard battle. "If the Supreme Court chooses to take this case, we'll focus on that," says Philips. "If not, we have other colleges waiting in the wings."


Ken Rapoza

MORE FROM Ken Rapoza

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