A predicted wave of retirements of tenured faculty is presenting colleges with opportunities and practical and programmatic concerns -- as well as legal considerations, according to a report released today by the American Council on Education.
SAN FRANCISCO — How far can colleges go to stop students who are threatening to commit suicide?
It’s a fundamental question for college and university officials who work in the fields of student affairs, counseling and mental health -- and for the lawyers who may have to deal with the aftermath, and sometimes see mental health issues as a minefield of potential litigation.
Imagine a college student returning to campus next fall and being greeted by a student government representative who asks her if she is devoutly religious or not. She answers “yes” and the representative responds, “I am sorry, the student government has decided that the separation of church and state means that, as state college, we have to be free of religious students. You may want to consider a religious college.” Next imagine this befuddled student taking her complaint to the president of the college and he says “Yes, I know the student government’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause is wrong and utterly violates the U.S. Constitution, but I don’t want to interfere with their autonomy. Besides this is a ‘teachable moment.’ If they eventually get this ‘no religious students on campus’ decision in front of me, however, I will veto it. In the meantime, have you considered a religious college?”
While I have seen abuses of the Establishment Clause almost as ridiculous as this in my career, I use the above example to illustrate the absurdity of a public college delegating students’ constitutional rights to the student government. In cases across the country, however, administrations have stood idly by while student governments pass rules and make decisions that flatly violate the Constitution. One recent case that demonstrates this phenomenon involves the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, where the student government passed a rule in March banning groups with a "particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint" from receiving student-fee funding.
This may not seem like a particularly big deal to some. What the students and many observers don’t seem to understand is that profound moral and constitutional principles are violated by this rule.
The case no one seems to have adequately explained to these students is the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Regents v. Southworth. In that case a group of students (also at the University of Wisconsin, in that case at Madison) objected to the mandatory student fee because much of the money -- money they were forced to pay in addition to their tuition -- went to support groups they fundamentally disagreed with. This is a serious civil liberties concern. As bad as it may be to tell citizens what they can’t say, it is far worse to tell them what they must say, and perhaps worse still to tell them they must directly fund groups that they fundamentally oppose. Why, for example, should pro-life students be forced to give money to pro-choice student groups, or gay students be forced to give money to groups that believe homosexuality is sinful?
The Supreme Court in Southworth, however, did not see this as forced support of other’s opinions as long as certain conditions were met. In this unanimous decision, Justice Kennedy argued that, while people should not be forced to directly subsidize speech they despise, the student-fee system was more akin to a subsidy of free speech for all students in general -- as long as the collected funds were distributed without regard to the viewpoint of the student groups. The decision was a kind of constitutional compromise: public colleges may collect mandatory student fees if, and only if, student groups of every opinion (or no opinion at all) could apply for funds on an equal basis. While colleges would have every right to set up “viewpoint-neutral” criteria for funding, like requiring a certain number of students to be a members before being recognized or only funding on-campus events, the fact that students or administrators did not like the message of particular student group could not be used to deny a group funding from the mandatory student-fee pool.
Other options are also open to public colleges under Southworth. Public colleges can, for example, eliminate student fee funding altogether, or they can designate its use for narrow content-neutral categories, like designating fees exclusively for intramural sports, or monthly social events. The analysis gets trickier if a college with mandatory student fees banned groups with formal ties to outside political groups like the College Republicans or the College Green Party.
In order to stand a chance of surviving a Southworth challenge, the college would likely have to ban funding for all groups associated with outside organizations (a tricky and difficult standard to administer, that would doubtless prevent many students from forming the groups they would prefer to form) but even doing that would not rule out the chance of a lawsuit. Anytime administrations, and, in particular, student governments are empowered to take the content of a group into consideration the possibility of such a standard being used against groups with unpopular viewpoints (and, thereby, violating Southworth) presents itself.
Unfortunately Southworth’s requirement of “viewpoint neutrality” is often badly misunderstood and the Eau Claire student government has turned the concept completely on its head. Over the past year the student government and some members of the student media have interpreted "viewpoint neutrality" as meaning that they could not fund student groups that had any particular viewpoint or "bias." As part of growing trend coming from both the left and the right to route out "bias" on campus, a ranking student representative was even quoted in Eau Claire’s student newspaper as saying, "We want to exclude any groups that would be religious in nature, political in nature or anything that would have a political agenda [from being funded through student segregated fees]."
This statement directly contradicts numerous binding Supreme Court cases, including Southworth and Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, and flatly discriminates against both religious and secular viewpoints. Why didn’t the administration offer some guidance to the students? After all, the student government was publicly contemplating passing a rule that violated the U.S. Constitution for months.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wanted to know why the administration was allowing their students to flounder and then flout the Constitution so blatantly, so it wrote the president and the upper administration. In an April 6 letter, FIRE emphasized a point that should be clear to any high school civics class: "As a state institution, the university and its administrators should understand that UWEC has a non-delegable duty to ensure that the First Amendment rights of its students are protected, and that no federal, state, local, or university rule, policy, or regulation can trump the exercise of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution ." FIRE received a belated reply from the general counsel that allegedly the policy was “not yet in effect” and was pending review by her office, which would guide the university to deal with the policy in compliance with Southworth .
While this gives some hope that the rule will eventually be overturned, during the previous fall the student government refused to recognize a student magazine called The Flip Side because of its "progressive bias." The new, highly unconstitutional, regulation passed on March 14, 2005. The students have been laboring under the viewpoint that strong points of view are bad for months now. What exactly is the administration waiting for?
In previous situations where student governments have attempted to limit the free speech rights of other students, like University of Oregon where the student government stripped a student magazine’s recognition for poking fun at a transgender student representative who asked to be referred to as “zi” or “hir” rather than gendered pronouns like “he” or “her,” administrators essentially argued that that they did not want to interfere with the autonomy of the student government. While respect for the democratic process is commendable under some circumstances, one of the basics of our democracy is that there are some rights we deem too important to vote away. That is the reason why we have a Bill of Rights. The importance of the autonomy of the Eau Claire student government does not exactly match in importance the protection of free speech principles.
Some of the students seem to genuinely misunderstand the law here, and due to this misunderstanding they are violating the U.S. Constitution. As soon as administrators found out about this debate they should have informed the students that their interpretation of “viewpoint neutrality” was not just wrong but unlawful. Instead they have allowed student groups and the student government to fight it out among themselves with no apparent effort by the administration to defend the groups that were faced with these unconstitutional criteria.
Meanwhile students write editorials interpreting Southworth to mean "student fees could only be used to fund content-neutral organizations." If this is one of those "teachable moments" that educators talk so much about, it has failed. It is time the Eau Claire administration — and other universities where student harbor similar misunderstandings — do their job and teach their students what "viewpoint neutrality" really means.
Greg Lukianoff is director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
In what may be the worst decision for college student rights in the history of the federal judiciary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit this week turned back the clock a half-century and reinstated the old discredited doctrines of in loco parentis and administrative authoritarianism.
In Hosty v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit ruled by a 7-4 majority that administrators at public colleges have total control over subsidized student newspapers. But the scope of the decision is breathtaking, since the reasoning of the case applies to any student organization receiving student fees. Student newspapers, speakers and even campus protests could now be subject to the whim of administrative approval.
The case seemed like an open-and-shut example of unconstitutional suppression of dissent. On November 1, 2000, Patricia A. Carter, dean of student affairs at Governors State University, in Chicago’s south suburbs, called the printer of the student newspaper, the Innovator, and demanded prior approval of everything in the paper, which had annoyed administrators with its criticism of the university. Prior restraint is a classic violation of freedom of the press, and the editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty soon sued the university.
Student press groups were alarmed when the Illinois attorney general’s office argued that the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier should apply to college newspapers. The misguided Hazelwood decision has been an unmitigated disaster for high school journalists, and the possibility of extending it to college students is terrifying.
Terrifying, that is, for anyone who cares about freedom of the student press. But for the majority of the Seventh Circuit, Hazelwood was a legal opening for conservative judges who wanted to reach a predetermined result. If the majority opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook had merely extended the censorship of Hazelwood to colleges, it would have been a principled decision; a terrible principle, but a principle nonetheless.
However, because Dean Carter’s action violated even the Hazelwood standard, these activist judges had to rewrite the Hazelwood precedent to justify the censorship of all student newspapers and activities. The judges had to eliminate Hazelwood’s restriction to curricular-based newspapers, and then had to eviscerate any constitutional protections for a “limited public forum” such as a newspaper. It took the judges 18 months from the time of oral arguments, and some convoluted reasoning, to achieve their goal.
The Hazelwood case declared that high schools could only censor student newspapers that were created as part of the curriculum. However, the majority decision in Hosty goes far beyond this, expanding censorship of high school papers as well by eliminating the “curricular” limit.
Jettisoning the Hazelwood standard restricting only curricular-based newspapers was merely the first of Easterbrook’s violations of precedent. He also annihilates the common understanding of “limited public forum,” a term created by the Supreme Court to provide a middle ground between the unregulated public forum (such as standing on a soapbox on the quad) and a non-public forum (such as a university-controlled alumni magazine).
“If the paper operated in a public forum, the university could not vet its contents,” Easterbrook wrote. He then asked, “was the reporter a speaker in a public forum (no censorship allowed?) or did the University either create a non-public forum or publish the paper itself (a closed forum where content may be supervised)?” Of course, a newspaper isn’t a public forum like a soapbox. It’s limited to the students who run the newspaper. By declaring that only a pure public forum is entitled to Constitutional protection, Easterbrook eliminates the First Amendment on college campuses for any limited public forum, including any student-funded activities.
“What, then, was the status of the Innovator?” Easterbrook continued. “Did the university establish a public forum? Or did it hedge the funding with controls that left the university itself as the newspaper’s publisher?” By his logic, the only speakers or newspapers on a public college campus that fall under public forum protection would be those that receive no funding from student fees or university funds (a rare commodity indeed). Any funding “controls” are directly tied to ideological controls.
Easterbrook concluded, “Freedom of speech does not imply that someone else must pay.” This is the philosophy of “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” and the Supreme Court has rejected it over and over again at public colleges.
Easterbrook is claiming that if the university can require student groups to follow funding rules designed to prevent fraud (and demand that student fee money be spent on a newspaper rather than, say, a private party), then the administration must be granted total control over the content of the newspaper.
A Break With Precedent
This is a bizarre conclusion, considering that the Supreme Court has repeatedly banned such control by colleges in funding cases.
In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Court ruled that a public university cannot ban funding for a newspaper based on its religious content. Now the Seventh Circuit has declared that a public university may be obliged to fund a religious newspaper, but it can impose any control over its contents. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges must ban all viewpoint discrimination in funding student groups. It would be bizarre if college administrators were granted the direct power to control the viewpoints expressed in student newspapers, while by expressly banned from making funding decisions based on viewpoint. Yet this is what Easterbrook’s opinion permits.
Any non-public forum that is funded by the university to any degree could be controlled and censored by administrators. Any use of campus space by a student organization is subsidized by the university, as are all registered student groups that receive any benefits or funding. Therefore, all of these groups are subject to total control by the administration under Easterbrook’s ruling.
In essence, Easterbrook argued that there is only one kind of censorship that is impermissible on a public college campus: banning someone from speaking for free on a soapbox on the quad. In all other cases, under the Hosty v. Carter ruling, college administrators across the country now have a green light to ban anything they want, from controversial campus speakers to critical student newspapers.
Although the Hosty ruling itself only applies to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the states covered by the Seventh Circuit, the “qualified immunity” test allows any public college administrators to avoid damages in any case where the law is unclear -- and the Hosty case certainly makes freedom of the student press an unclear idea.
The Hosty decision could also affect faculty academic freedom. If college students have no more Constitutional protections than first graders do, then college professors may have no more rights than elementary school teachers. Decades of cases establishing the unique legal status of colleges and academic freedom, based on the maturity and rights of college students, might be wiped away if Hosty is upheld.
Easterbrook also hauled out the dubious idea of institutional academic freedom: “Let us not forget that academic freedom includes the authority of the university to manage an academic community and evaluate teaching and scholarship free from interference by other units of government, including the courts.” If “academic freedom” means only the power of administrators to “manage an academic community,” then students and professors alike will be subject to censorship by the administration.
The Innovator has been shut down for almost five years, replaced by the administration with a more pliable newspaper where students never investigate or criticize their college. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the Seventh Circuit’s unprecedented act of conservative judicial activism, the Innovator may only be the first among many newspapers and student organizations silenced by administrators at public colleges, with the blessing of the courts.