An open letter to Sonny Perdue

Posted: Jan 03, 2006 8:05 AM
Dear Governor Perdue (Office of the Governor, Georgia State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334; Phone: 404-656-1776):

I am writing to ask for your assistance in dealing with a series of glaring First Amendment violations occurring on the watch of Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough. President Clough is aware (from my previous columns) that these things are happening. By the end of this short column, you will know everything you need to know to curtail President Clough’s indifference to constitutional principles. In so doing, you will be able to restore basic political and religious liberties that have long been abandoned by Georgia Tech.

First, I would like to direct your attention to the following link on Georgia Institute of Technology website:

More specifically, I would like for you to spend a few minutes looking at the following lines concerning the allocation of mandatory student activity fees at Georgia Tech:

“The following activities will not be funded in budgets: i) Partisan Political Activities ii) Religious Activities iii) Social Fraternal Activities and, iv) Events with alcohol present.”

As you may well know, the United States Supreme Court was asked - just five years ago – to abolish mandatory student activity fees at public institutions of higher learning. A student at the University of Wisconsin led the charge for the abolition of these fees on the theory that they compelled him to associate with ideas with which he disagreed. The Supreme Court – in Wisconsin v. Southworth (2000) - rejected that argument with the following language:

The University may determine that its mission is well served if students have the means to engage in dynamic discussions of philosophical, religious, scientific, social, and political subjects in their extracurricular campus life outside the lecture hall. If the University reaches this conclusion, it is entitled to impose a mandatory fee to sustain an open dialogue to these ends.

This language makes it very clear that Georgia Tech is within its rights in imposing a mandatory student activity fee on its students. At Georgia Tech, a portion of that money is used to fund various student groups. The Supreme Court, while approving of such fees, also demands that those disbursing the fees use “viewpoint neutrality as the operational principle” for redistribution. The following explains that principle and links to an important precedent, which explains the principle further:

The University must provide some protection to its students' First Amendment interests, however. The proper measure, and the principal standard of protection for objecting students, we conclude, is the requirement of viewpoint neutrality in the allocation of funding support. Viewpoint neutrality was the obligation to which we gave substance in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819 (1995). There the University of Virginia feared that any association with a student newspaper advancing religious viewpoints would violate the Establishment Clause. We rejected the argument, holding that the school's adherence to a rule of viewpoint neutrality in administering its student fee program would prevent "any mistaken impression that the student newspapers speak for the University." … When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others. There is symmetry then in our holding here (in Southworth) and in Rosenberger: 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. We conclude that the University of Wisconsin may sustain the extracurricular dimensions of its programs by using mandatory student fees with viewpoint neutrality as the operational principle.

The problem at Georgia Tech is very simple. The university is opening public discussions using mandatory activity fees while carving out rules – rules the Southworth case prohibits – that ensure an unbalanced discussion of ideas.

One example is the debate over gay marriage. The university properly uses mandatory student activity fees to fund a group called the Pride Alliance, which occasionally assembles to express support of gay marriage. Georgia Tech should continue to fund the Pride Alliance making no requirement that they seek outside funding for activities that are overtly political, even “partisan.”

At the same time, Georgia Tech must – in order to comply with Southworth - abolish the written rule that “Partisan Political Activities” and “Religious Activities” will “not be funded in budgets.”

The Pride Alliance, the College Republicans, the Muslims, the Jews, the conservative Christians, the liberal Christians, and every single group wishing to address the issue of gay marriage (or any other controversial topic) must have equal access to mandatory student activity fees. Anything short of complete viewpoint neutrality is not only unconstitutional but also cowardly and narrow-minded.

Currently, the restrictions placed on Georgia Tech groups like the College Republicans and various religious groups place the State of Georgia in grave danger. When, not if, a lawsuit is filed, the State may well pay a dear price for taxation without viewpoint representation at one of its major institutions of higher learning. But you can avoid that prospect by engaging in quick and decisive action.

After I first brought this matter to the attention of Wayne Clough, he visited the Georgia Tech Student Government Association. During that visit, he dismissed the situation by simply referring to me as a “liar.” Fortunately, several moles in the Senate recorded his remarks and subsequently mailed them to me. And, fortunately, access to the links I have provided will put the lie to any attempt to write off my accusations as “lies.” This matter is far too important for childish attacks and dismissive remarks.

Governor, I hope that you will take my charges more seriously than President Clough has taken them to this point. There is more at stake than compliance with the United States Constitution. We must also ensure an expansion of the marketplace of ideas within an increasingly intolerant institution of higher learning.

I hope that thousands will take the time to call you (at 404-656-1776) and politely urge your intervention in this matter.