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Student government loses authority over club funding in order to settle viewpoint discrimination suit

College pays $20,000 and removes ban on ‘similar’ clubs

Until this weekend, the College of Charleston had rules on the books that let it refuse to recognize new student groups that are “too similar” to existing student groups.

It used them to ban a political education club that teaches fellow students about “local and state political structures and systems.”

The South Carolina Politics Club supposedly duplicates the work of the public college’s “Fusion Party,” which is partisan, progressive and politically active, in spite of the fact that the former is nonpartisan, non-ideological and education-only. Enforcement was also spotty: The college had approved other groups that would seem to be “too similar.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom sued the college last summer on behalf of the Politics Club, and in spite of the taxpayer-funded institution’s losing hand, for some reason they just reached a settlement Tuesday.

In a press release Wednesday, the public interest litigation firm said the college agreed to put “objective guidelines” on the books for recognizing and funding student clubs. The “similar” language is gone, and the college said it will “immediately recognize” the Politics Club. It also agreed to pay $20,000 in litigation costs and attorneys’ fees to the alliance.

Though the settlement is dated Tuesday, it says the college agreed to adopt the revised policy and pay the alliance by June 1. It also says the Politics Club was formally recognized May 6. It does not include the actual language of the revised policy, referred to as “The Compass.” The College Fix has asked the alliance for that language.

MORE: CofC sued for refusing to recognize political education club

One condition of the settlement is relevant to an ongoing debate over the jurisdiction of student governments. The College of Charleston agreed to remove its student government from decisions over whether an applicant club is eligible for funding, according to the alliance.

It was the student government’s decision – informed by Associate Director of Student Life Organizations Jill Caldwell and Associate Vice President for Student Involvement Michael Duncan – to deny recognition to the Politics Club, ignoring its objective differences from the Fusion Party.

“Registered student organization status is a gateway to numerous resources that include the ability to reserve meeting space, invite speakers, and access the pool of mandatory student activity fees that all students pay into,” the alliance wrote Wednesday. In effect, the college took mandatory fees from Politics Club members while denying them the use of fees for their club.

Giving such “sweeping authority” to the student government, which can reject clubs for “arbitrary and unjustified reasons,” left open the door to “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination,” it said.

Williams College, a private school in Massachusetts, is under federal investigation for letting its student government reject a club for its pro-Israel views. Though the administration eventually approved the Williams Initiative for Israel under a different vetting process, it has refused to reform its two-track process for recognition, leaving open the possibility of future viewpoint-based rejections.

The Fix has asked the college for comment, a copy of the new policy, and an explanation for why the lawsuit took so long to resolve.

Read the release and settlement.

MORE: Williams College refuses to strip student govt. of authority over club recognition

IMAGE: Meikesen/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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