Student org. files suit over Gratz event reimbursement

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Jennifer Gratz, plaintiff of the 2003 Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, speaks about affirmative action at the University in October. Buy this photo

By Yardain Amron, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 22, 2013

A student organization filed suit against the University on Friday over denied funding for a lecture given by anti-affirmative action advocate Jennifer Gratz on campus in October. The group, Young Americans for Liberty, contends their First Amendment rights were violated.

In late November, the University rejected the group’s $1,000 reimbursement request for Gratz’s fee because the it deemed the speech political. Granting the funds would have infringed upon a University rule that prohibits funding any events that are political or religious in nature.

Gratz is best known as the plaintiff in a 2003 suit against the University in which the Supreme Court ruled the University’s admissions system in place at the time — which granted extra points in admissions to minorities based on race — was unconstitutional. In 2006, she was a prominent force behind the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, better known as Proposal 2, which proscribed the use of race-based affirmative action in Michigan.

Gratz’s talk this past October came on the heels of a new case — Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action — which reached the United States Supreme Court and challenged the constitutionality of Proposal 2.

Her speech, titled “Diversity in Race v. Diversity in Ideas: The Michigan Affirmative Action Debate,” was in many ways political, and in the lawsuit, YAL doesn’t argue otherwise.

Instead, the group claims that because the reimbursement funds they requested are derived from mandatory student-fees, the University must allocate those fees on a viewpoint-neutral basis. Yet, the University has funded other political and religious groups in the past, which YAL says demonstrates that University officials “regularly favor some RSOs (recognized student organizations) over others, based on the content and viewpoint of the speech those RSOs express.”

The suit goes on to list a number of political and religious RSOs that have been granted University funding, including Amnesty International, Students for Life, the Muslim Students Association and the University of Michigan Hillel.

In fact, just a week before YAL hosted Gratz, the University approved funding for the travel expenses of a pro-affirmative action RSO — Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). BAMN bused students to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of affirmative action outside the court during the oral arguments for Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

Though the University’s Guidebook for Student Organizations states funds may not be used to “advocate for or against the adoption of legislation on a federal, state, or local level,” court decisions are not considered pieces of legislation.

BAMN organizer and University alum Kate Stenvig was quick to point out that her group has been denied funding “plenty of times” in the past.

“BAMN defends the right of all student organizations to receive funding from CSG and the University for their events, including political events, which are crucial to promoting a lively debate on campus,” Stenvig said in a statement. “But we reject any claim that white or conservative student groups are being discriminated against and minority student groups are being favored in the way these funding decisions are being made.”

The University has not been a silent bystander in the affirmative action debate. Earlier this year, the University submitted amicus curiae briefs in Fisher v. Texas, a 2013 Supreme Court case that challenged the University of Texas’ affirmative action policies.

The University expressed support of the affirmative action policies declared constitutional under the Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, the 2003 Supreme Court case that declared the University’s law school admissions policies were constitutional.

After the passage of Proposal 2 in 2006, University President Mary Sue Coleman delivered an address on the Diag vowing to uphold the University’s commitment to diversity.

Since its passage, Black student enrollment at the University has dropped from 7.1 percent to a current 4.2 percent.

David Hacker, the senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit firm representing YAL in the case, said the political or religious nature of a student organization’s event should not dictate whether it is granted funding.

“The University can decide how to fund activities, but they have to do so based on objective criteria unrelated to the viewpoint of the message being expressed,” Hacker said.

Such neutral standards might include whether the student organization used funds appropriately in the past or costs associated with the event, like the number of estimated attendees, venue size and food supplied.

Hacker said an alternative option he’s seen implemented at other universities is to make the student fee optional, thus allowing the university to still pick and choose what events it wishes to fund, while also giving the student the ability to opt-out.

At the University, students paid $97.19 in mandatory student fees during the 2013-2014 academic year, $7.19 of which was directed toward the $300,000 student organization fund.

ADF has won similar cases in the past. Most recently, they represented a pro-life student organization at Eastern Michigan University that was denied student fee funding for an on-campus display called the Genocide Awareness Project.

In the settlement, “EMU agreed to fund the student organization’s event, change the student fee policy, bring its funding practices in line with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and pay Students for Life’s attorneys’ fees,” according to ADF’s website.

The University has yet to respond to the litigation.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail that the University is reviewing the lawsuit and was not able to provide comment.

YAL also declined comment on the case.

As for students, Hacker said they should be excited about the case because it means no matter the popularity of the student group, funding should be allocated objectively.

“It’s a pro-free speech, pro-equal access, equal opportunity case, and we’re hopeful that if the Young Americans for Liberty prevail that basically it will reopen the marketplace of ideas so more student groups can participate within it, and increase the diversity of thought and message on campus,” Hacker said.