By: Pooja Bachani
What happens when there is unlimited, unchecked power given to one person or group of people?
You guessed it – tyranny.
Well, that is exactly what the student organization environment looked like at College of Charleston last year when the South Carolina Politics Club (SCPC), a non-partisan student group that seeks to organize and educate students on the structure, apparatus, and processes of South Carolina local and state politics, was denied recognition because it was “too similar” to another student group on campus.
This raised several questions in the minds of the students involved in SCPC, including:
- What does it mean to be “too similar”?
- Who determines the level of similarity?
- Why is “similarity” enough to limit the existence and operation of a student group?
Here’s what these students found when they started asking these questions.
A group of public college administrators had entirely unchecked power to determine which student groups qualify to become a registered student organization.
Why is this designation important?
Because only registered student organizations have access to receive funding from the student activities budget (which every student is required to pay into), invite speakers, or reserve space on campus. As if that weren’t bad enough, these groups are forbidden “from affiliating and socializing” with unregistered organizations because they are too “risky.”
Say goodbye to your constitutional right to freedom of association.
In order to justify their refusal to accept SCPC as a registered student organization, college officials claimed it was too similar to the Fusion Party, another registered student organization that encourages political engagement, and suggested they merge together.
But that suggestion is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, merging with the Fusion Party simply because both groups are political in nature would erase the unique vision of SCPC altogether. And second, many SCPC members are opposed to the Fusion Party’s ideas and advocacy. Registering the Fusion Party and excluding SCPC is viewpoint discrimination.
SCPC felt it was left with no choice. The student group reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom to file a lawsuit against the College of Charleston. And, thankfully, the college has agreed to change its policies to respect the First Amendment rights of its students and student groups.
The bottom line is that college administrators cannot arbitrarily determine that one student group is too similar to another group and deny that student group access to funds on that basis. Because every student contributes to the fund, every student organization should receive equal access to those funds. Likewise, telling students to join a different group that they don’t want to join also violates students’ rights and grants administrators unlimited discretion.
The U.S. Constitution’s protections apply whenever a student steps foot on a public campus, a truth that no administrative body can overturn.