In my recent post, Student Fee Flop, a student at the University of Pittsburgh raised an excellent point that I thought deserved further discussion. Basically, the student said that the Student Government Board (SGB)—not the University—was in error when the SGB refused to allocate student activity fee funds to Students for Life because of the campus group’s pro-life viewpoint. But even though the SGB allocates the student activity fees, the University itself violated the Constitution. How is this so?
When it comes to student activity fees, public universities engage in a constitutional “bargain,” so to speak. A university wishing to impose a mandatory student activity fee to fund student speech must affirmatively ensure that those fees are allocated in a viewpoint-neutral manner, regardless of who does the allocating. A university that desires to fund only certain student viewpoints must relinquish the mandatory nature of the student activity fee. Pitt has chosen the former route, and so it has elected to shoulder the constitutional duty to ensure that the fees are distributed without regard for the views of the students requesting such funds. It cannot avoid this duty by passing the buck to the SGA. In fact, Pitt breached this duty even before SFL was denied funding, as it imposed the student activity fee without safeguards in place to prevent viewpoint discrimination. As the Supreme Court held in Southworth:
Viewpoint neutrality is the justification for requiring the student to pay the fee in the first instance and for ensuring the integrity of the program’s operation once the funds have been collected.
To remedy this constitutional deficiency, Pitt must establish clear, precise and exhaustive standards to guide the SGB’s allocation decisions and to eliminate the subjectivity currently inherent in the process. Until that time, Pitt will violate the Constitution every time it exacts the student activity fee, and student organizations’ First Amendment rights will remain subject to the whim of the SGB.