Critical race theory training was required of all student organizations to receive significant funding from the student government at the largest public law school in the Northeast.
Critics raised concerns that this policy violated freedom of expression and amounts to compelled speech.
This policy has since been rescinded. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent out a news release stating, “Six months after passing an unconstitutional amendment that would force student groups to promote critical race theory or lose funding, Rutgers Law School-Camden’s Student Bar Association has finally done the right thing.”
Here is is the story of how that happened.
What the student government did
To secure funding for operations and events from student fees at Rutgers Law School, student club leaders were required to plan at least one critical race theory or diversity training event to be in compliance with the Student Bar Association, according to a news release by FIRE.
The Student Bar Association is the name of the student government. It allocates all funding for student organizations at the law school.
The student government voted to add this string to club funding on February 21, according to its official minutes.
The duty to be ‘viewpoint-neutral’
Nicholas DeBenedetto, president of the Rutgers chapter of the Federalist Society, notified FIRE of the policy. The academic civil liberties group in turn reminded the university that as a public school it has very clear obligations under the courts’ First Amendment jurisprudence.
FIRE wrote a letter to Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway that laid out the legal issues with the new rule.
The letter argues that the First Amendment bars the law school from forcing student organizations to showcase inherently ideological and political events in exchange for access to activity fee funds. It also argues that the school is legally obliged to allocate student fee funds to groups in a neutral manner.
“Rutgers’ authority to impose mandatory student fees—whether it does so through a student government or otherwise—carries with it the burden to ensure that any distribution of these funds to student groups is done in a viewpoint-neutral manner,” the letter reads.
FIRE also raised the point that the policy may violate the legal prohibition against compelled speech.
The civil liberties group suggested that Holloway roll back the policy to protect students’ rights and avoid future litigation.
The College Fix reached out to a Rutgers University media representative for comment. The school did not reply to multiple queries.
A small, determined group
The College Fix spoke with Rutgers Federalist Society chapter president DeBenedetto over email on May 21. He shared the official minutes of both Student Bar Association meetings where the policy was first introduced and ultimately unanimously passed, by a vote of 27-0, three months later.
Asked about the level of support for this policy in the larger student body, DeBenedetto said, “It appears as though the policy originated with a small, but determined, group of students who serve on the SBA and who tend to be more inclined to run for SBA positions in the first place.”
“As far as I am aware, there was not a lot of deliberation about this policy or a significant request for engagement from the student body. The policy seems to have been formulated by the SBA and then voted into existence relatively soon thereafter,” DeBenedetto told The Fix.
The only example of campus outreach that came from the Student Bar Association about this major change in financial governance was a single Zoom meeting that was open for the general student body to virtually attend.
In the November 2020 minutes, first, the student government policy declares that all executive board members in student organizations must undergo the official “diversity & inclusion and cultural competency training” provided by the Student Bar Association itself.
Second, it forces organizations requesting $250 or more from the SBA to plan “at least one (1) event that addresses their chosen topics through the lens of Critical Race Theory, diversity and inclusion, or cultural competency.”
Former ‘free and open environment’
Failure to comply with that training order wold result in a given group’s ineligibility to receive any funds within the present budget cycle until compliance is met.
Student organizations seeking funding would have been forced to engage in a training event that may conflict with the political views of a particular group, or that may have nothing at all to do with the actual interests of the club.
DeBenedetto characterized the club diversity training mandate as a “deviation” from the “generally free and open environment” the third year law student had enjoyed on campus.
Prior to this rule’s ratification, clubs had been able to host events at their own discretion, generally absent any student government interference.
DeBenedetto noticed possible conflicts between this policy and the First Amendment right away, he said, which is why he contacted FIRE about it.
Is critical race theory legal in public schools?
While FIRE argues that Rutgers Law School should walk back the critical race theory training funding precondition, many U.S. state Attorneys Generals across the country have made headlines by openly opposing grants to further the theory, saying it has no place in public schools.
Th letter asserts that the theory reduces the study of American history by interpreting it “primarily through the narrow prism of race.”
The AGs further argue that a critical race theory-centric education “distorts, rather than illuminates, a proper and accurate understanding of our nation’s history and governmental institutions and, therefore, is fundamentally at odds with federal and state law.”
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that the policy was rescinded.
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