Former Michigan Review writer and editor and current employee of the Collegiate Network James Justin Wilson has written me a “letter to the editor” arguing that the supreme court’s Southworth case means everything student governments do must be “viewpoint neutral.” I have argued that the case, which only applies to student group funding, doesn’t prohibit a student government from spending money that reflect political opinions. If you accept Wilson’s logic, MSA would have to dissolve the Environmental Issues Commission, the LBGT Affairs Commission, the Student Rights Commission, (they have a viewpoint!) as well as not lobby state government or administrators to keep tuition low. MSA wouldn’t be able to co-sponsor earth day events on the “coming out week” events held each year, lobby the administration on The Code, or actually do anything except for allocate funding. If Mr. Wilson thinks his legal interpretation is correct, he should bring a lawsuit against the student government of nearly all the public universities in the country.

“Yesterday’s MSA allocation of more than $5,000 for students to travel to a choice event was irresponsible for two independent reasons.

First, never in MSA’s recent history has it spent so much money on so few students for such a partisan purpose. For the students traveling to the event, it’s nearly a 1000% return on their investment (mandatory student fees). If for no other reason than fiduciary responsibility, MSA was wrong to spend so much on so few. Furthermore, this criticism is completely
independent of my political views. I’d be just as angry if MSA gave YAF $5,000 for a lecture that only 200 people could attend.

Second, MSA is not an elected representative body, it is a 501c3 nonprofit organization whose board of directors is elected by its members (the student body) and whose funding is obtained through a government grant (a tax levied on tuition to a state institution). Like any other 501c3 that receives state money, it cannot discriminate for a number of factors. But discrimination is not the lynch pin to the funding fiasco.

Political speech, particularly in the academy, is held to the highest level of judicial scrutiny. Your interpretation of the pertinent cases is inaccurate and not based whether the money goes to a student group or not. To begin with, the controlling decision in this instance is Wisconsin v. Southworth, not Fry. In that decision the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision held that student governments at state schools must, like any other institution that receives state funding, preserve a constitutes–in this case a student’s–freedom of speech. In that view, MSA is a body charge with fostering a discourse of ideas on campus not the dominant viewpoint.

According to the University’s own Fundamental Tenants of Membership in the University Community, “Because the search for knowledge is our most fundamental purpose, the University has an especially strong commitment to preserve and protect freedom of thought and expression. Reasoned dissent plays a vital role in the search for truth; and academic freedom, including, the right to express unpopular views. is a cherished tradition of universities everywhere. All members of the University have the right to express their own views and hear the views of others expressed, but they must also take responsibility for according the same rights to others.”

Considering that and the ruling in Southworth, MSA has a responsibility to preserve the speech of all students at Michigan, even those who posses what it deems to be an “unpopular views.” This is to say that your “analysis” of Fry, which is not the controlling ruling in this instance, is wrong to assume that the tenant of viewpoint neutrality only applies to student groups. Such an argument is found nowhere within the ruling, nor in the resulting jurisprudence.

Consider a hypothetical. Imagine if a city government allowed the Republican party to hold a convention at the town’s central park, but told the Democratic party to go elsewhere. In this case, the city is not acting in a viewpoint neutral way, and as such, stifling the DNC’s ability to speak. The same would be true if the city gave unequal funding to electoral candidates.

Now, consider that within the context of the March for Women. Here is a situation where MSA is paying for students to go to a pro-choice event, but as you explain, it should send any to a pro-life event. This is equivalent to sending students, be they Democrats of Republicans, to the Democratic National Convention, but refusing to send any to the RNC.

As the Supreme court found in the seminal case Buckley v. Velao, money is one of the most fundamental forms of speech (think: “money talks”). More importantly, freedom of speech implies the necessity of being heard. In this case, Michigan is favoring one viewpoint by giving money to students to attend a rally (which is, in itself, a form of political speech).

To bring this full circle, what MSA did last night was favor one viewpoint over another. But as an organization that accepts state money and as a member of the University community, MSA cannot legally fund such a non-neutral event. …

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Author: Rob