Funding student activities through a referendum or initiative process does not satisfy the U.S. Supreme Court’s “viewpoint neutrality” test, according to advice sent to Portland State University on Thursday from the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ).
The DOJ examined the issues raised by a case heard by the country’s highest court in 2000, University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, at the request of ASPSU’s Evaluation and Constitutional Review committee (E&CR).
E&CR members sought advice from DOJ as to whether or not the Supreme Court decision applied to the current controversy surrounding Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group’s (OSPIRG) current ballot measure campaign.
In Southworth, three University of Wisconsin (UW) students sued the university, claiming their first amendment rights were violated when the school used their student fees to fund groups whose viewpoint the students disagreed with, then refused to let the students opt out of the student fee system.
The court, while not making a determinate decision about referendums being patently viewpoint biased, did express concerns about the process and remanded the case to lower courts.
UW immediately eliminated the referendum funding process.
Other universities have followed suit. The University of Oregon eliminated its referendum funding process last year and implemented a committee process much like PSU’s Student Fee Committee (SFC).
This is but one more kink in the already complex web of rules and guidelines involved in PSU’s referendum and initiative process.
This year, two groups intended to enact ballot measures to fund their organizations after being refused funding by the SFC.
PSU Recycles!, the on-campus recycling initiative led by sustainability coordinator Michele Crim and recycling coordinator Alisa Kane, sought a $1 annual increase in student fees in order to fund roughly 10 student positions and purchase recyclables containers for public areas.
The SFC didn’t feel comfortable funding a program that was a joint effort of the Office of Facilities and students, in addition to fearing that funding the purchase of containers would set a bad precedent for future container purchases.
That left Kane with the option of presenting an initiative question to the E&CR for approval on the March ASPSU ballot.
The E&CR never approved the language of the question, forcing Kane to appeal to the ASPSU Senate.
Wednesday, the Senate turned down Kane’s proposal to bypass the E&CR and put the question directly on the ballot.
Kane is dismayed by the rules involved in putting an initiative for funding on the ballot.
“As a student, its almost impossible to decipher the who, what and how things have to happen,” she said.
After much trying, Kane failed, and she remains frustrated by the whole experience.
“Even if you go through the proper channels, they aren’t enough,” she said.
OSPIRG crafted a ballot measure after the SFC refused to fund the group at its current level, $120,000, because of concerns over the group’s presence at PSU.
The SFC offered OSPIRG $21,000 in reserve money on the condition that the group’s revised budget was approved by the SFC.
That funding level would have brought the PSU chapter of OSPIRG below the minimum chapter level (roughly $2.50 per student per term), and it would no longer be able to remain affiliated with the larger OSPIRG organization.
OSPIRG members then had 30 days from that initial setback to draft a ballot measure that would overturn the SFC ruling and return OSPIRG to its previous $120,000 funding level, resulting in a $1.99 increase in student fees each term, and get the language approved by the E&CR.
After multiple sessions with the E&CR and revisions of language, the group’s initiative was approved by the E&CR on Feb. 15, giving members five days to gather signatures from 10 percent of the student body pledging support for the measure.
Tuesday night, the group was informed that the ASPSU elections committee had decided the actual deadline was to be Wednesday instead of Thursday.
Signature gatherers were still short when they learned of the new deadline and scrambled the night before the new deadline to reach 2,500 signatures.
Now that struggle hangs in the balance, as the DOJ advice could conceivably be used by the E&CR next Tuesday to throw out the OSPIRG ballot measure. If they don’t, there is a chance that the results would not be legally enforceable.
OSPIRG coordinator Kari Koch is currently seeking other legal opinions in order to make a case for her organization’s ballot measure.