A conservative student group is suing the University of Florida in federal court, alleging the university’s process of disbursing student fees to fund non-budgeted organizations on campus has been marred by discrimination.
The Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at UF, aided by Alliance Defending Freedom, sued the university’s Board of Trustees and its president on Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
The student group has helped organize on-campus speaking engagements for conservative commentators inlcuding Ben Shapiro and Dinesh D’Souza. The 45-page legal complaint says the group had been discriminated against by UF’s Student Government when senators denied YAF’s request to become a fully budgeted student organization and subsequently passed a code revision barring non-budgeted groups from filing funding requests for speaker fees.
“Under this new policy, budgeted student organizations can advocate for their own viewpoints both directly and by bringing in guest speakers, but non-budgeted student organizations cannot obtain funding to similarly express themselves,” the complaint states.
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After hosting D’Souza using student activity fees, YAF applied for $6,225 to host conservative commentators Dana Loesch and Andrew Klavan but were denied under the new policy, the lawsuit claims. The organization argues the policy change specifically targets their viewpoints because no other non-budgeted group has hosted a speaker at UF in recent years.
“UF officials are actively trying to stifle the University of Florida Young Americans for Freedom chapter on the basis of the students’ conservative beliefs,” said Young America’s Foundation spokesman Spencer Brown in a statement.
“This past year, the University of Florida denied UF YAF funding to host Dana Loesch and Andrew Klavan. That denial — and the timing of policy changes that, in function, only impact UF YAF — speaks loudly to the University of Florida’s true intention to prevent conservative ideas being heard on campus.”
UF Budget and Appropriations Chair Emily Dunson, who co-authored the funding-policy revisions that YAF attorneys have targeted, is a registered Republican, according to state voting records. She did not respond to requests for comment.
UF football player and former student senator Daniel Weldon, and YAF President Sarah Long are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks a declaratory judgment that UF violated the students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of the Student Activity Fee policy.
The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $3,487, which is how much money in student activity fees plaintiffs Weldon and Long have paid during their time as students at UF, along with attorneys’ fees and other costs.
Before a student organization can qualify to receive annual funding through the Budget Committee, it must be registered for at least a year and receive ad hoc funds from the Allocations Committee for another year, according to student government rules. The Allocations Committee has an annual budget of $50,000. Meanwhile, organizations on the budget cycle were earmarked just over $1 million in 2017.
The lawsuit challenges the student government’s “unbridled discretion” in allocating student activity fees, the lack of an appeals process for denied funding requests and the fact that plaintiffs Weldon and Long, who are full-time students, must pay student activity fees “pursuant to a policy which is not viewpoint-neutral.” Students at UF pay $19.06 per credit per semester, according to the lawsuit.
“By forcing plaintiffs to fund the speech of others, and by allocating Student Activity fees without objective criteria that ensure against viewpoint discrimination, defendants have violated and will continue to violate plaintiffs’ rights,” the complaint states.
In a brief statement, a UF spokesman said: “The University of Florida is committed to upholding the First Amendment right to free speech and promoting a campus community that is open to all points of view.”