ALBANY, N.Y. — A federal judge has ordered the Student Association of the state University at Albany to pay partial refunds to two students whose mandatory activity fees helped fund an organization they consider too politically liberal.
U.S. District Judge David Hurd, ruling this week in a suit brought by Eric Amidon, Winston Brownlow and the conservative group Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, also struck down the student government’s use of referendums in determining how much money to give campus groups.
At issue is $106,000 the association gives annually to the New York Public Interest Research Group — $5 from each student’s mandatory $80 semester activities fee — and the conservative group’s failed request for a similar amount.
In his ruling, Hurd cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Board of Regents v. Southworth that mandatory student fees may fund extracurricular political and ideological speech, “facilitating the free and open exchange of ideas.”
But the top court noted free-speech implications for students who may hold other political views, saying their First Amendment rights should be protected through “viewpoint neutrality” in the allocation of university funds.
Hurd faulted the university’s use of campus referendums, even as mere advisory measures to gauge student interest, saying they let popular opinion determine which activities to fund.
“The whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views,” Hurd wrote. “That is essentially what is at risk in this case — unpopular speech will be made more expensive than popular speech because the student association will subsidize the popular speech.”
The judge ordered the school’s student association to refund to Amidon and Brownlow $5 for each semester they attended the university — the amount of their fees that went to NYPIRG. He also struck down the student bylaws that provide for the referendums.
He noted that two other factors in State University of New York rules for funding campus groups are problematic as objective criteria — whether groups “will expend funds for the enrichment of campus life” and whether they can provide services that complement the “educational mission at the university.”
In rejecting higher funding for New York Collegians for a Collective Tomorrow, the Albany Student Senate had noted the group was new and unproven, with no track record to justify more than $100,000 in funding, and that it had only 15 to 30 members and no program except to bring speakers to campus.
The group got $1,200 in 2003-04, wanted to be included in a student referendum in an effort to get more, and then sued. Amidon, who recently graduated, said yesterday that the group plans in the spring again to seek about $100,000 in a detailed budget proposal.
The group, which advocates affordable education, solving environmental problems and free enterprise solutions, wants to work with NYPIRG and bring speakers to campus on both sides of debates, Amidon said.
“One thing we’re wondering is if other students will want their $5 from every semester and if there will be some kind of class-action lawsuit,” he added.
The judge noted that even under neutral criteria, the amount of funding for each student group can vary widely.
“NYPIRG clearly provides a substantial number of services to SUNY Albany students,” he wrote.
NYPIRG, with chapters on 20 campuses, describes itself as a SUNY and student-directed nonpartisan nonprofit organization whose mission is to train students in civic engagement and advocacy. Its list of campus projects includes voter mobilization, homeless relief and consumer advocacy.
Rebecca Weber, NYPIRG’s executive director, said the judge’s ruling would actually limit free speech. “It’s so disturbing that this student government has been ordered to refrain from asking their constituents to weigh in,” she said.
“We have other funding sources, but we fully expect the same level of funding on campus,” Weber added. “Our services are used by a wide variety of students. The notion that we are funded because of our political views is preposterous.”
Lewis Oliver, attorney for Albany’s Student Association, said his clients were considering whether to appeal.