University of Wisconsin Lets Student Government Deny Status and Funding to Pro-Life Group

State   |   Alliance Defending Freedom   |   Nov 20, 2017   |   4:35PM   |   Washington, DC

Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on behalf of a student organization that had been unconstitutionally denied official recognition by the school’s student government before an administrator intervened. The letter requests that the school modify its unconstitutional policies that authorized the student government to discriminate against the conservative group.

Earlier this fall, Emily Strangfeld along with other students organized a Turning Point USA chapter at UW-Stevens Point. TPUSA is a national organization whose mission is to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government. Although the fledgling chapter satisfied the six application requirements for recognition, the school’s student senate voted to deny recognition without explanation. Although an administrator rightly reversed the student senate’s decision, the school’s underlying policies give the campus senate and the administrator unlimited authority to deny recognition, and thereby funding, to any group opposed by the student government.

“Universities should encourage all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas, not play favorites with some while shutting others out,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “While we commend the university for correctly reversing the student senate’s denial of TPUSA’s application for recognition, we now call upon UW-Stevens Point to eliminate the unconstitutional defects in its policies that enable the student senate, or an administrator, to shut out any group they don’t like.”

The letter explains that UWSP’s policies violate the First Amendment because they give unchecked power to the student government association and one administrator to decide whether a group should be granted official recognition and whether it may then qualify for student activity fee funding. It further notes that this sweeping authority allows the SGA and the school’s vice chancellor to deny status and student activity funding for any reason, including unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

After Strangfeld submitted the TPUSA application for recognition, she and another club officer, David Herda, were required to appear before the student senate to take questions. While they were allotted a standard 20 minutes to discuss the application, the senate opened the floor to students attending the hearing, which turned into a three-hour interrogation. Students accused TPUSA of being “dangerous,” “a threat,” and a “hate speech group.” Strangfeld and Herda were then given only 10 seconds to rebut the accusations before the senate took a private vote to deny them official status. Following the hearing, Strangfeld informed Troy Seppelt, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, that she wanted to appeal.

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On Nov. 14, she and Herda met with Seppelt and Vice Chancellor Al Thompson to explore an appeal. Thompson informed them that there was no formal written appeal process, but that he had full power to grant or deny recognition. On Nov. 17, by letter, he reversed the SGA’s decision and indicated that TPUSA had satisfied the requirements necessary for recognition.

“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, university chancellors, and voters,” said Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students and why it should disturb everyone that UW-Stevens Point and many other universities are communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”

The ADF letter asks the school to respond by Nov. 27 to avoid litigation, indicating that it will revise its problematic policies and require the SGA to approve any student group that satisfies the school’s application criteria. Wisconsin attorney Karen Mueller, one of nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, also signed the letter and serves on the legal team representing TPUSA.