Yes, we know it’s legal. Yes, we know the concept of viewpoint neutrality is not implicated by this matter. Yes, we’re sure Elizabeth Wrigley-Field and her ideological allies on the Associated Students of Madison Student Council could rattle off ASM’s long history of taking political positions on behalf of the student body. We recall how fervently advocates for Brian Benford, during his failed run for ASM chair, cited his “credentials” as a ’70s-era activist. But this sacred history aside, we are unpersuaded that ASM has a moral duty to endorse the motivations of any political faction, movement or protest unless it directly pertains to the university.
On Sept. 16, 2009, the ASM Student Council voted 18-0-5 to, according to a press release, “publicly voice its support of the National Equality March scheduled for October 11 in Washington D.C.” This is a march for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, clearly modeled after the famous March on Washington of 1962.
ASM has no business registering its support for this march. We would say the same thing about any march, for or against the cause in question. It is easy to forget, as students at the University of Wisconsin, that what seems politically black-and-white to student leaders has many shades of gray for the average student. And while our students and broader culture mull over an issue as agonizingly complex as same-sex marriage — an issue that immediately implicates religion, culture, moral conceptions and constitutional interpretation — the members of Student Council have an ethical responsibility to withhold public statement. It is bad enough that a conservative student could easily get the impression that our university administration has formally endorsed the full gamut of same-sex rights proposed by activists, and that they are expected to follow suit. Our Student Council should not send a message to students that if they disagree with their leadership on a specific social issue, they need not apply.
All of this, of course, follows from the efforts of Ms. Wrigley-Field and a coalition of LGBT-related and leftist groups to gain full ASM funding for their sojourn to the National Equality March. Student organizations sponsoring these efforts include the LGBT Campus Center, Ten Percent Society of UW Madison, the International Socialist Organization, Queer Student Alliance of UW-Madison, and other non-student groups that would not be eligible for travel or event grants. This epic struggle for funding begins with a travel grant for $960, allocated by the Finance Committee, that Ms. Wrigley-Field and ISO deemed to be wholly inadequate to their needs for the protest. One might argue $960 is a reasonable amount for a travel grant to Washington, D.C. So Wrigley-Field is now proposing the ASM Student Council fund all transportation expenses — for an as yet unspecified number of people — for the Oct. 11 march. Ms. Wrigley-Field’s ability to advocate for her demands should not be understated; on a bad day, with the right amount of council vulnerability, she could prevail on this one.
It has been a long time since The Badger Herald has been this politically incorrect, but in the words of Thomas Paine, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” And it is indeed wrong for ASM to grant any funding to events that violate their standards for granting funds, even if the events in question support majority-held political positions.
There are eight criteria that a travel grant must fulfill to be approved by the Finance Committee. Two of these criteria are clearly not met by the National Equality March. First, petitioners must “clearly describe how the trip is central to the purpose of the RSO and how the trip helps the RSO accomplish its goals.” It is unclear to us how any credible allocators of student grants could automatically assume that a march through Washington, D.C., would have any more than a cursory impact on LGBT equality, especially since such marches are notorious for bundling together countless other radical causes and characters which — to put it bluntly — do the LGBT rights movement no favors. The truth is protest and marches provide emotional benefit to the participants, strengthening their solidarity and hope for a better world. They do not, as a general rule, accomplish any specific goal. And assisting in “[accomplishing] a specific goal” is a prerequisite for receiving travel grant funding.
The second problematic criterion is that “The travel will substantially benefit students other than the traveler.” And here again the National Equality March fails the test. The only item ISO could offer the Finance Committee to substantiate this claim was the assurance the group would bring back photos and videos from the march to show the campus. We fail entirely to see what substantial benefit non-attending UW students will reap if a coalition of UW students attends the march. The march will happen, UW students or no UW students. The march will provide no more visibility for LGBT rights if a few more folks from UW come along for the ride too. The reasoning that students would substantially benefit if the march in any way brought increased attention to LGBT equality movements is far too abstract to merit the usage of ASM funds. (It would be another matter entirely if, for example, student representatives were going to Washington to lobby congresspersons directly for federal funding of LGBT student services on college campuses.)
Even $960 is too much money to throw at this affair, then. For Ms. Wrigley-Field to attempt to bully ASM into providing thousands of dollars of additional funding nearly lapses into self-satire. We are ironically heartened by the (nonetheless unwarranted) statement of “support” by ASM for the National Equality March, since it seems at least to indicate reticence to grant any more than the $960 already allocated by the Finance Committee. But we are troubled by the precedent Ms. Wrigley-Field is setting. By even asking for this money, she seems to suggest anyone not funded fully by the Finance Committee can simply rush to Student Council to fill the rest of their coffers — a bureaucratic nightmare if ever we envisioned one. At any rate, let us be very clear: It is not the job of the Finance Committee, nor of the ASM Student Council, to fund student travel 850 miles away, for a march whose substantive benefit to the student body remains as unclear as the motives of those who champion it.