Public universities are bound by the First Amendment’s free speech clause not to discriminate against viewpoints when allocating student fees among the various clubs on campus. The University of Florida at Gainesville (UFG) is the latest public educational institution to forget this basic rule.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) just announced a court settlement in favor of its client, the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative student group on the Gainesville campus. YAF will receive $66,000 to cover its costs and attorney’s fees incurred in bringing its lawsuit against the school, and UFG agreed to change the policy regarding allocation of student fees.
How did this all start? All students at UFG pay a student activity fee as part of their tuition, which goes to fund student clubs and other student activities on campus. But all student organizations, even though they are officially “registered organizations” on campus, do not receive equal access to funds. UFG allowed its student government to decide which groups to fully fund, and which to only partially fund, depending on a status conferred by the student government as either a “budgeted organization” or “unbudgeted organization.” UFG allowed the student government the unbridled discretion to choose which clubs to favor, and which to disfavor, without setting a viewpoint-neutral policy that would operate in a fair and impartial manner.
YAF wanted to bring some conservative speakers to campus, and applied to the student government for funds to do so, and was denied under the discriminatory system. Progressive student clubs, on the other hand, were favored under the student government-run system.
YAF and its lawyers at ADF filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the university in December 2018. That got the university’s attention, leading to changes and the settlement.
ADF was pleased. In a statement, ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton said, “Thankfully, in response this lawsuit, the University of Florida recognized the errors embedded within its policies by adopting changes that no longer force YAF members to pay into a system that funds opposing viewpoints and discriminates against their own. While students shouldn’t have to file a federal lawsuit to vindicate their rights, we’re grateful that the university quickly suspended its discriminatory policy this past spring and worked closely with us to meet our clients’ goals and respect their freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
YAF also celebrated its victory. “This settlement is a great victory for all students at the University of Florida,” said Sarah Long, YAF’s chairperson at the university, in a statement on YAF’s website. “The University of Florida should be a marketplace of ideas where students can decide for themselves which ideas have merit. Moving forward, our chapter is excited to host leading conservative speakers on campus,” she added.
Discrimination against conservative and religious student clubs on public university campuses is nothing new. And it will likely keep popping up around the country. Knowing your rights and finding organizations like ADF to help fight for those rights will be invaluable in the quest to obtaining a level playing field for conservative and religious speech on college campuses.
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