What's a Group Gotta Do to Post a Flyer Around Here?
December 8, 2010
by Jacob Sullum
On Sunday night, Northern Illinois University's Student Association Senate denied recognition to the school's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which means it may not post flyers or meet on campus. The Senate already had denied activity-fee funding to SSDP, declaring it a "political" group, as opposed to a "social justice" or "advocacy" group. Sunday's meeting was called to address constitutional objections to this decision raised by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which last month wrote a letter to NIU President John G. Peters noting that NIU, as a state-run university, is bound by the First Amendment, which prohibits viewpoint-based discrimination in the allocation of funding and facilities to student groups. Why did the Student Association Senate nevertheless refuse to recognize SSDP when it had a second chance? If the majority had a justification aside from spite, it is not apparent in the account of the meeting provided by the Northern Star, NIU's student newspaper:
Senator Austin Quick, who voted for recognition, said he was surprised that NIU SSDP was not recognized Sunday.
"I think with all the fear and blatant disrespect towards the SA Senate, it upset enough senators to sway their votes," Quick said.
Senator Khiry Johnson said he voted against the motion to approve NIU SSDP because they did not make changes to their application after their initial recognition postponement.
"I felt like they didn't respect our decision the first time nor did they take our critiques seriously," Johnson said.
Given their inflated sense of their own importance and their experience in passing blatantly unconstitutional legislation just because they're offended by something, these guys seem qualified to be real senators someday. NIU SSDP President Jeremy Orbach suggested the Senate should be worried about the First Amendment instead of the Student Association's application forms. "Apparently, nobody is taking this seriously," he told the Northern Star. "Hopefully someone will start paying attention soon."
Under the current policy, both "political" and "religious" groups are ineligible for funding. As FIRE notes, that distinction in itself is constitutionally problematic, and in applying it the university has arbitrarily discriminated against groups based on puzzling criteria. While Advocates for Choice, the Campus Antiwar Network, the Consumer Education Society, PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), Students for Life (NIU), the Vegetarian Education Group, and the Women's Rights Alliance have been deemed eligible for funding as "social justice" or "advocacy" groups, the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife and the Model United Nations, along with SSDP, have been deemed ineligible because they are too "political." Similarly, the Baha'i Club and NIU Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers both can receive funding under the latest guidelines, while groups such as Hillel, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Latter Day Saint Student Association, the Muslim Students Association, the Newman Catholic Student Center, and the Pagan Student Association are ineligible because of their religious character.
Furthermore, FIRE notes, "The new definitions even prohibit a student group from receiving Activity Fee funding if any of its activities result in any individual, anywhere, 'petitioning Federal, State, or Local legislative or executive bodies for policies advocated by that group.'" FIRE's Adam Kissel sums up the constitutional violations embodied in NIU's policies regarding student groups:
NIU's Student Association Senate has violated all five of the rights codified in the First Amendment. The Senate violated the rights of freedom of speech and assembly by denying recognition to Students for Sensible Drug Policy and by discriminating against all groups it arbitrarily deems 'political' or 'religious.' The Senate violates the right to freedom of the press by stating that unrecognized groups are prohibited from posting flyers on campus and that publications will presumably threaten a group's funding. The Senate's policy violates the First Amendment religion clauses, since Baha'i, humanist, and atheist groups can receive funding to discuss religious topics, but other religious groups get nothing, in practice favoring some religious groups over others. Finally, perhaps the Senate's most stunning achievement of all was to violate the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances.
FIRE is urging President Peters to "immediately step in to preserve students' rights."