Wichita State Drops Viewpoint Discrimination in Student Fee Funding
March 6, 2012
There's some good news out of Wichita State University (WSU), which recently had decided to enact a rule that prohibited any "non-scholarly religious" student group from receiving student fee funding. The good news is that WSU has now un-enacted that rule.
The reasoning usually offered for this type of rule is that it is intended to prevent religious groups from using student fee money to advocate for their religion on campus, or to engage in worship or other activities to which others might object. But when these rules are confined to only religious student groups (as opposed to groups engaged in political, social, and other forms of expression and advocacy), what they amount to is the official disfavoring of religion compared to other viewpoints. For example, WSU allows the viewpoints of such student groups as "That Gay Group," College Republicans, College Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists, and Wichita Students for Liberty to exist on campus. WSU has a large number of other groups as well, many of which have viewpoints they wish to promulgate, even if it's just appreciation for contemporary art. If other student groups continue to receive funding from student fees for "non-scholarly" activities, there is no justification for denying funding to groups whose primary interest is religious.
As FIRE discusses in our Guide to Student Fees, Funding and Legal Equality on Campus, two Supreme Court cases, Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000), stand for the proposition that a public university cannot enact a policy regarding the use of student fees that discriminates against certain groups on the basis of their viewpoints. That appears to be precisely what WSU did.
Fortunately, a student at WSU contacted the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) about WSU's policy. ACLJ took action, writing to the university demanding the repeal of the rule. Shortly after receiving this letter, WSU revoked the discriminatory policy and restored equal funding rights to its religious groups. This area of law is settled; what is surprising is that there is still a university out there that didn't "get the memo."
Religious speech on campus should (and on public campuses, must) be treated like all other speech; a student group should not be disfavored simply because its viewpoint is based on religion rather than any other belief, preference, or interest. To permit such a distinction would be to allow the university to silence any speech that does not conform to the particular agendas or beliefs of its administrators—a practice that would fly in the face of the core purpose of the First Amendment.