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I teach at a large, publicly-funded community college. Here’s an item I thought you might have an opinion on:
Since we’re state-supported, is this sort of thing even legal?
Students are allowed to form their own groups on campus, and do. It’s how they find like-minded people, and attract like-minded new friends. Fraternities, Chess Clubs, Latin clubs, political clubs, Secular Student Alliances, student religious clubs.
This group is a little different in that it apparently is an alliance that stretches across several campuses in the area. But just like the Secular Student Alliance, there is nothing that prevents a group of interested students from forming a chapter on every campus within reach.
At the high school level, the Equal Access Act allows student-led groups to form for political, religious, philosophical, or other reasons. This act was spearheaded by religious organizations that wanted to insert prayer in school, and the happy result is that secular students, gay students, and other social minorities benefit from it. The Equal Access Act says:
It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.
Of course, the act says a whole lot more, but you get the gist.
The Equal Access Act does not apply to colleges. Unlike tax-supported high schools, there are no free colleges, and college attendance is not compulsory. Most, if not all, colleges collect an “activities fee” from every enrolled student that helps to support student-run organizations like the college-level Secular Student Alliance, Gay-Straight Alliance, Jewish Student Union, Japanese Club, Chess Club, Baptist Student Union, etc. Normally, these resources – including funds, meeting rooms, and photocopying costs – are made available to student organizations based on very general criteria.
There’s a U.S. Supreme Court case that says it’s okay for religious students to organize on campus and use campus resources. It came about when a religious student club at the University of Virginia (UVA) wanted to print its magazine with university resources. UVA said that it couldn’t permit the religious publication because government money as well as student activities fees would pay for the printing, and to print the religious publication would violate the Establishment Clause. Other, non-religious groups used those resources regularly. The religious student organization sued. The Supreme Court said that to deny the religious student group access to funds available to other student publications violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. The university could not selecting which organization could or could not use the resources based on the content of the publication.
So, Professor Plum, as long as the college where you work allows all student-organized groups to use the same resources, there’s not a problem.
The website for the group in the photo indicates that this group is a student-run organization that reaches across several local campuses. There is nothing to prevent similar student groups on multiple campuses from joining together. Fraternities have always done this – that’s how there’s a Sigma Chi or a Tri-Delt at so many different colleges. They can even have a national organization that sets out guidelines and provides some funding – just like the Secular Student Alliance does.
What they cannot do is harass people, preach to captive audiences, or offer free cheese dip without decent chips. This group apparently wants people to pour cheese dip on its Bible Study handouts since it fails to offer tortilla chips in its ad. If the cheese dip is any good, this may be the highest and best use of said handouts.
Got a legal question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. You can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.