Addressing Challenges of Student Organizations
BY SAUNDRA K. SCHUSTER
Student organizations are an important part of the culture of higher education institutions. They provide a wide variety of benefits for students in the form of social outlets; networking opportunities; affiliation with others of common interests; development of leadership skills; and involvement with institutions and the larger community. Student organizations also pose challenges to institutions, including a variety of risk management concerns such as hazing and group activities involving on- and off-campus events. They also create issues involving the constitutionally protected
rights of organizations and their members versus the competing values of other students or the institution. Significant U.S.
Supreme Court decisions have helped to shape institutional obligations toward student organizations.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Widmar v. Vincent (454 U.S.
o263 (1981)) held that if an institution creates a physical
forum for expression of views, the institution cannot discriminate against student organizations who seek to use that forum
because they disagree with the organization’s viewpoint.
In 1995, the court held that religious groups on public
campuses must be treated equally with non-religious groups
(Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia,
515 U.S. 819). The case involved the university’s refusal to
fund a Christian newspaper based on the argument that it
would constitute an establishment of religion by the state,
while other student organizations that did not have a religious
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viewpoint were considered eligible for funding. The court
found this action to be unconstitutional because the refusal to
fund was based on the content of the message in the Christian
newspaper, citing impermissible viewpoint discrimination.
In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court addressed issues of student
organization funding (Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S.
217). The University of Wisconsin funding for student organizations was challenged based on First Amendment rights of
compelled speech and association in requiring student funds to
support political or ideological activities offensive to their own
views. The court decided that using mandatory fees to support
expressive activities of student organizations was permissible if
the fees were distributed on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
Most recently, the issues for higher education institutions that
have risen to the level of legal challenges and court decisions
have centered around the conflict between religious liberty for
the student organizations and institutional non-discrimination
policies. Most colleges and universities require that student
organizations adhere to institutional non-discrimination policies as a condition of institutional recognition, which generally
carries with it opportunities for funding, use of physical facilities, and other institutional benefits. The basis for institutional
non-discrimination policies is both to support inclusiveness as
well as comply with federal non-discrimination laws.
The conflict between student organizations and colleges and
universities has its genesis in Christian student organizations’
refusal to admit students who do not adhere to the fundamental
belief systems of their organizations. Generally this refusal is
applied to gay and lesbian students. In some cases the organization outright refuses membership to these students; in other
cases the organizations require a signed oath of belief and behavior; and in still others, the organization allows membership but
denies leadership opportunities for students who do not live in a
manner consistent with the Christian beliefs of the organization.
The conflict comes down to opposing viewpoints: Christian
groups say they should be allowed to restrict organizational
membership or leadership to heterosexual students who share
their faith. Institutions say that by discriminating against certain types of members the group forfeits its eligibility for recognition and funding. The student groups argue that colleges
are violating their group’s, and members, First Amendment
rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion.