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College sued for refusing to recognize student club that promotes political education

‘Too similar’ to partisan, progressive, politically active club (except it’s not)

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could object to students learning more about the “local and state political structures and systems” where they attend college.

The College of Charleston is not bound by your imagination, however.

A new federal lawsuit alleges the South Carolina public college is unconstitutionally discriminating against a student club by denying it recognition based on being subjectively “too similar” to another registered club.

Oddly, the college recognizes multiple clubs that would seem to be “too similar” to others based on the loose criteria used against the South Carolina Politics Club: “the Network of Enlightened Women and the National Organization for Women, as well as the Political Science Club and Turning Point USA.”

Officials repeatedly ignore evidence of substantial differences

Members of the Politics Club are paying “mandatory student activity fees” but are being denied use of those fees for their own activities, according to the club’s lawyers at the Alliance Defending Freedom.

They are also blocked from reserving space and using “physical forums” because of the college’s refusal to recognize them.

Lead plaintiffs Jeremy Turner and Adam Gainey, both full-time undergraduates and club officers, have already paid more than $500 combined in student activity fees and will have paid more than $1,000 by the time they graduate.

The student government rejected the Politics Club’s application for recognition “because we are prohibited from creating clubs that have the same purpose,” Secretary Emily Ramsayer wrote in an email to Turner in February. She cited a policy that says “proposed organizations shall not duplicate the mission or purpose of another currently registered organization.”

Another student organization, the “Fusion Party,” has the same purpose as the Politics Club’s, according to Ramsayer, instructing Turner to “collaborate” with that club.

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The student government is wrong, according to the lawsuit: The Fusion Party is explicitly partisan, progressive and politically active, in contrast to the nonpartisan, non-ideological, education-only Politics Club.

“On or about” February 20, the club appealed the denial to the Student Senate, informing it of the differences between the clubs, and was rejected the same day. Ramsayer ignored their evidence and said the clubs had “shared purposes” while denying that there is “a process for giving an official reason for denial.”

The student government’s advisor, Associate Director of Student Life Organizations, Programming and Events Jill Caldwell, also “advised” the Student Organizations Review Committee to deny the application.

Another top official, Associate Vice President for Student Involvement Michael Duncan, ignored the club’s evidence of its differences from the Fusion Party. He told the club to get a “different purpose,” find “some common ground” with the Fusion Party, or get a “different concept.”

The only other option is filing another petition for registration the following semester, Duncan told them, according to the suit. (Duncan and Caldwell are named as defendants; the lawsuit has one apparently mistaken reference to student Ramsayer as a “defendant” as well.)

‘System of unbridled discretion’

“None of these options respect the constitutional rights of the SCPC members” and it continues to deny them funding for the fall semester, the plaintiffs say:

Associating with other organizations, even ones that may hold similar but not identical beliefs, alters the message SCPC’s members wish to express and compromises SCPC’s purpose for association. …

By maintaining the [Registered Student Organization] Funding Policy, the Defendants required Plaintiffs to subsidize the expression of other RSOs.

By maintaining the RSO Funding Policy, the Defendants subjected Plaintiffs to content and/or viewpoint discrimination in the allocation process.

The university subjected the club to a “system of unbridled discretion” and “preferential and
disparate treatment” for registered clubs, according to the suit. It also targets the registration policy for “facially” discriminatory treatment of religious viewpoints, which are singled out for “additional barriers to entry” for club recognition.

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The funding policy “contains no objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria to determine which RSOs will receive an annual budget and the amount of any granted budget,” a First Amendment violation, it says.

The Politics Club’s freedom of association is also violated by being forced to associate with another club, whether distinctly different or just “similar but not identical.”

The registration and funding policies are “impermissibly vague and ambiguous and are thus incapable of providing meaningful guidance” to university and student government officials in evaluating applications, or to student clubs seeking to “conform their conduct,” in violation of the clubs’ 14th Amendment right to due process.

The plaintiffs want a judgment against the registration and funding policies as unconstitutional, both “facially and as-applied,” as well as compensatory and nominal damages and attorney’s fees.

Read the suit.

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IMAGE: NOBUHIRO ASADA/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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