– A student organization filed a federal lawsuit
Friday against the University of Florida for failing to distribute money collected from mandatory student fees to student organizations in a fair, viewpoint-neutral manner. Administrators at the university have denied the non-partisan Young Americans for Freedom chapter status as a “budgeted organization,” maintained a complex and discriminatory process for obtaining that status, and also changed its special funding policy in a manner that singled out the pro-liberty, student-led group.
“State universities are uniquely expected to be a free marketplace of ideas, not an assembly line for one type of thought,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Blake Meadows. “University of Florida administrators are limiting YAF members’ First Amendment freedoms by forcing them to pay into a system that funds opposing viewpoints. Worse yet, the university forces YAF to play an arbitrary, complex game of Chutes and Ladders, in the funding process, wherein the student group can continually be sent back to the beginning of the game at the sole discretion of the student government. The university also changed its rules to apparently single out and disqualify the conservative group from receiving funding for speakers fees and honoraria—making it even more difficult for the group to express its viewpoint on campus.”
University of Florida requires students to pay a mandatory Activity and Service Fee and then allocates those funds for student expression. The university maintains two categories of registered student organizations—budgeted and non-budgeted. However, despite YAF being in existence for nearly two years, the university has denied YAF the right to be a budgeted organization and used the fees collected from YAF members to fund other similarly situated organizations that promote opposing viewpoints. The university’s current policy allows it to favor popular views and exclude or dampen unpopular views.
The lawsuit, Young Americans for Freedom v. University of Florida
, challenges the university’s policy which grants the University of Florida Student Government free rein to allocate mandatory student fees back to certain student groups for student advocacy. The current policy allows fees to be distributed using undefined and subjective criteria, and it fails to provide an appeals process if the organization’s request for funding is denied. Even if the student organization meets all published criteria to become budgeted, there is no guarantee or requirement that the group actually receives money because a student body treasurer and president can disqualify the group from funding at their whim.
There are 48 budgeted student organizations whose total budgets are in excess of $1 million. Numerous student organizations have budgets totaling more than $100,000. Meanwhile, the remaining 859 student organizations share a mere $50,000.
Although functioning as a non-budgeted student organization, the YAF chapter did obtain a limited payment for a speaker honorarium through the university’s Special Request policy. But when YAF later applied for funding for another speaker’s honorarium using the Special Request system, the university denied the request and announced a new policy: Only budgeted organizations are now eligible to receive support using the Special Request system. As the YAF complaint explains, “budgeted student organizations can advocate for their own viewpoints by bringing in guest speakers, but unbudgeted student organizations cannot obtain funding to similarly express themselves.”
“Students don’t give up their constitutionally protected freedom to speak or associate when they set foot on a public college campus,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Today’s university students will be tomorrow’s voters and civic leaders. That’s why it’s so important that public colleges and universities exemplify the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students. All students are entitled to viewpoint-neutral access to and allocation of student activity fees—or they should get their money back.”
“The YAF chapter deserves the same equal access to university resources as every other student organization on campus,” said YAF Associate General Counsel Mark Trammell. “It is completely inappropriate for the University of Florida to treat students differently because of their beliefs. The purpose of today’s lawsuit is to remedy this inequity.”
Russell LaPeer, one of more than 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for the YAF chapter in the case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.