Tom Bartlett at the Chronicle of Higher Education has written a nice, in-depth article (subscription required) about the ongoing battle over viewpoint discrimination in student activity fee funding. Like many seemingly esoteric academic freedom debates, the topic seems excruciating boring (in fact, if you say the phrase “student activity fees” in a speech, half the audience immediately nods off) but is in fact incredibly important — involving (nationally) hundreds of millions of dollars of direct payments from and to students that funds the entire machinery of student activism in this country. To the best of my knowledge, Tom did what no one else has done: took a look at a random sampling of university policies to determine how well they matched Supreme Court precedent (which mandates viewpoint neutrality in funding). What he found was disturbing but — for those who are familiar with university compliance with legal precedent — hardly surprising. Money graf:
More than a decade later, some public universities still have policies that appear to run counter to the spirit and letter of Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. In fact, a review of more than a dozen student handbooks across the country reveals a confusing and contradictory mishmash. Some policies explicitly welcome religious groups to apply for student-activity funds and inveigh against any “viewpoint discrimination.” Others prohibit religious groups from receiving any money. Still others are so vague that it’s unclear who is and is not eligible for support.
The actual examples are rather stunning. Cal State Long Beach prohibits funding for any “[a]ctivities which support or sponsor religious rites, services, instruction, recruitment, or proselytism; promote religious purposes; or limit participation to members of a certain faith.” Keep in mind that this policy is still on the books after the Supreme Court directed the University of Virginia to fund the publishing costs of a Christian magazine that explicitly and intentionally proselytized. Of course, “proselytism” is simply a loaded description of the process of persuading a person to adopt a particular point of view — something secular groups do every day. There is much more to be said about this topic, but Tom’s article is a great introduction. And for those who doubt its significance, simply imagine the alternative world — a world where all student groups are funded according to, say, their size and activity level (not their viewpoint). In such a world, funding of Christian and other conservative religious organizations would increase by several orders of magnitude, transforming not merely the perceived dominant voice on campus but also perhaps transforming our nation’s very understanding of what “student activism” means.