More than a decade ago, our nation's highest court held that student fees must be distributed in a content-neutral manner. Unfortunately, viewpoint neutrality is not always afforded to student organizations.
This weekend, the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation went before the Student Judiciary for the second time this semester. Their goal was to reclaim segregated fees that were wrongly denied to them because of viewpoint discrimination they suffered at the hands of several biased Student Services Finance Committee members and university officials.
Justice Brandeis famously stated that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And after the audio transcripts, e-mails, and memos surrounding UWRCF's budget hearing before SSFC were brought to light, it became abundantly clear that flagrant viewpoint discrimination was present.
For the past three years, UWRCF — which is no stranger to the Student Judiciary — has constantly struggled to receive a fair budgetary hearing from SSFC.
Earlier this semester, the organization went before the student judiciary after they were denied funding eligibility for the next academic year. The court, in a unanimous decision, found that SSFC had erred in rendering UWRCF ineligible for segregated fee funding. When the time had come for SSFC to determine the 2006-07 budget, though, UWRCF was once again subjected to religious discrimination.
The most blatant example of viewpoint discrimination came when SSFC zero-funded UWRCF's request of $35,462 for rent. SSFC defended itself by referring to an October 2004 memo from former Dean of Students Luoluo Hong. Several committee members used this memo to justify the cut, arguing that student fees cannot fund non-university-controlled properties. However, it seems that the memo was only applied to UWRCF. Every other organization received full funding of their rent and utilities budgets.
Interestingly, only two of these organizations hold leases through the university.
Religious discrimination continued to occur when SSFC was asked by UWRCF to fund the printing of their annual Lenten booklets. According to UWRCF's official complaint filed with the Student Judiciary, Rep. Barb Kiernoziak stated that the Lenten booklets should be cut because they were "a very, very Catholic thing." Her colleague, Rep. Adam Schlicht, stated that he "couldn't have said it more eloquently himself." And Rep. Frey agreed, stating that the booklets were "clearly a function normally performed by a church."
Eventually, the printing line item of the booklets, almost $5,000, was cut from the budget. But the religious viewpoints of the pamphlets never should have been considered.
Because of the viewpoint discrimination that took place, some committee members reconsidered their decisions. Rep. Tim Schulz, in an e-mail to SSFC dated three days after the budget decision, stated, "After speaking to a representative of UWRCF, I learned that these devotional booklets are written by students and are distributed across campus. These booklets, then, are similar to any speech literature that [other organizations] put out."
Some representatives later tried to reopen the budget decision of UWRCF, but it was too late.
The evidence showed that several SSFC members raised concerns about the way UWRCF was treated during the budget hearings. Rep. Lorenzo Edwards went as far as to request "safe harbor" from the proceedings in an e-mail to the committee, stating that "there was an extremely high level of scrutiny used in deciding on the UWRCF budget. … No other student organization, to my recollection, was held to the same standards as was the UWRCF."
The discrimination not only came from SSFC members — it came from the university as well. During the budget hearing, Interim Associate Dean of Students Elton Crim, Chancellor Wiley's representative to SSFC, discussed at length his objection to SSFC funding UWRCF. Mr. Crim stated that because UWRCF was a non-profit organization, it should seek funding from other sources and not from student fees. It seems that Mr. Crim felt UWRCF was not a true student organization.
Strangely enough, Mr. Crim never voiced these same sentiments for any other non-profit group requesting funding from SSFC. Prime examples could have been the Tenant Resource Center, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group or Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, among others. But he chose to remain silent on this issue during the budget hearings of those organizations.
UWRCF's hearing before the Student Judiciary this weekend has significant implications for the segregated-fee system at this university. This case is not just about reclaiming segregated fees wrongly denied to the organization by SSFC. Rather, it is about forcing SSFC to realize that under Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and Board of Regents v. Southworth, they cannot consider the religious viewpoint of an organization or activity in the fee-distribution process.
Hopefully the Student Judiciary, in accordance with the Supreme Court, can hold that religious practice is protected speech. If not, then litigation is in this university's future — once again.
Darryn Beckstrom ([email protected]) is a doctoral student in the department of political science and a second-year MPA candidate in the La Follette School of Public Affairs.