Under Pressure from FIRE, Northern Illinois U. Finally Recognizes ‘Students for Sensible Drug Policy,’ But Double Standards and Other First Amendment Violations Persist
December 10, 2010
by Adam Kissel
Today's press release announces that Northern Illinois University (NIU) has finally given full recognition to NIU Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) after the Student Association Senate twice denied the group any recognition, which had prevented SSDP from meeting or posting flyers on campus. But Senate policy still denies funding to all "political" and "religious" student organizations. This arbitrary standard classifies Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organizations as "religious" and therefore ineligible for funding, while the campus Baha'i Club is funded as a "cultural" group. Similarly, groups such as Model United Nations are considered "political" while many "social justice" or "advocacy" groups—including student pro-life, pro-choice, antiwar, women's rights, vegetarian, and victims' rights groups—are fully recognized.
"FIRE commends Northern Illinois University for finally agreeing to recognize Students for Sensible Drug Policy, but NIU's recognition and funding policies still violate students' First Amendment rights," says FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in the press release. "NIU's rules brazenly flout Supreme Court precedent by discriminating against all ‘political' and ‘religious' groups. NIU needs to reform its policies to ones that do not invite such extensive double standards, confusion, and abuse."
SSDP first came up for recognition on October 24, 2010, as a "Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support" group because it advocates "that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society" and seeks "to reduce the harms caused by drug abuse and drug policies." After extensive inquiries into the specific nature of the group's viewpoint, the Senate denied recognition to SSDP but offered it a chance to be recognized as a "political" group, which would render it ineligible for funding.
On November 7, the Senate then issued hopelessly vague definitions of "political" and "religious" groups that guarantee an unconstitutional double standard. Indeed, Advocates for Choice, Campus Antiwar Network, Consumer Education Society, PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), Students for Life (NIU), Vegetarian Education Group, and Women's Rights Alliance are eligible for funding as "Social Justice, Advocacy, and Support" groups, yet funding is denied to the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife and the Model United Nations, an academic simulation of the UN. Similarly, the Baha'i Club, dedicated to discussion of the Baha'i faith, is eligible as a "Diversity and Cultural" organization, while Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel, Latter Day Saint Student Association, Muslim Students Association, Newman Catholic Student Center, Pagan Student Association, and many more are not eligible for funding.
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"—amazingly violating the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances.
FIRE wrote NIU President John G. Peters on November 18, explaining that the Senate is bound by the First Amendment and that NIU is obligated to step in if the Senate fails to uphold students' rights. FIRE's letter reminded NIU of the Supreme Court's rulings in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995) and Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000), which established that public universities like NIU are required to grant political, religious, and other expressive organizations equal access—on a viewpoint-neutral basis—to student fee funding distributed to other student organizations. NIU Deputy General Counsel for Administration Gregory A. Brady replied on December 3, announcing a special Senate meeting on December 5. At that meeting, the Senate denied SSDP's petition for recognition a second time.
FIRE took SSDP's case to the public on December 6. Today, NIU Associate Vice President John R. Jones III officially notified SSDP that NIU finally was granting full recognition to SSDP as an advocacy group. NIU also announced that it is establishing a task force to revise NIU's funding and recognition policies by the end of the spring semester.
Meanwhile, the Senate still discriminates against all groups it arbitrarily deems "political" or "religious." The Senate still violates the right to freedom of the press by stating that unrecognized groups are prohibited from posting flyers on campus and that issuing publications will presumably threaten a group's funding. The Senate's policy still violates the First Amendment religion clauses, since Baha'i, humanist, and atheist groups can receive funding to discuss religious topics while other religious groups get nothing, in practice favoring some religious groups over others. Finally, the Senate's policy violates the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances.
As FIRE knows from 11 years of experience, putting a college's egregious First Amendment violations in the spotlight is an effective way to preserve students' rights. Fortunately, NIU's administration has started to clean up the First Amendment mess caused by the Student Association Senate.
NIU has not yet met its constitutional obligations, however. Having acknowledged the need for quick action to stop violating students' rights, NIU immediately must permit "political" and "religious" student groups to be eligible for funding.
FIRE Legal Network attorney Eric Sterling, a member of the national SSDP Board of Directors, has provided additional guidance to NIU SSDP. Jeremy Orbach, founder of NIU SSDP, says in the press release, "We are grateful to FIRE and Eric Sterling for their help and to NIU's administration for stepping in to preserve our rights. Now, we want to see our fellow student organizations get treated fairly, too."
You can let Northern Illinois University President John G. Peters know what you think by calling 815-753-9500, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or using our Take Action page, where you can tell Northern Illinois University to meet its moral and legal duty to prevent the NIU Student Association from violating the First Amendment.