OPINION: Cal State San Marcos’ ‘backroom deliberations’ led to its huge loss in court
Editor's note: The views in this opinion editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Campus Reform or of its parent organization, the Leadership Institute.
The author of this opinion editorial, Nathan Apodaca, attended Cal State San Marcos, where he served as president of the on-campus Students for Life chapter. He was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.
About three years ago, I decided to sue my university. For many, that might seem an extreme measure, but for me, it was an easy choice, because it’s outrageous to force students to pay for viewpoints they disagree with while denying them the right to present an opposing view.
The trouble began when my student organization, Students for Life of California State University – San Marcos, decided to invite a pro-life speaker to campus. We believed that a pro-life view could be reasonably defended in a public university forum—if given a fair hearing.
For years, CSUSM has collected millions of dollars from students through a mandatory fee that goes to support its student government, Associated Students Inc. Those funds are used, in part, to underwrite student activities. If your club or organization wants to sponsor an activity, you can apply to ASI for a share of the money.
Nothing is wrong with that, so long as the allocation is done fairly and evenly. No student organization—liberal, conservative, or anything in between—should be discriminated against simply because their beliefs are different from those of the people who run a university, oversee student activities, and make up the financial rules there.
As it turned out, though, ASI didn’t see things that way. They denied my club the funds we requested to bring in a pro-life speaker—funds we ourselves had contributed to through the mandatory fee—while at the same time funding pro-choice speakers with our money. As a result, the university is now having to pay over $240,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
[RELATED: Pro-life group sues CSU for denying funds based on content]
The federal court that heard my lawsuit, in which I was represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, determined that the university policies that set the stage for ASI’s actions were unconstitutional. The court specifically referenced the unrecorded “backroom deliberations” that led to ASI’s decision to deny funds to Students for Life. Those deliberations, the court said, were made possible because of administrative policies that let student leaders fund, or refuse to fund, whichever viewpoints they wanted—without even having to explain their decision.
Despite this, the student government claimed in a memo to the entire student body that no evidence exists that they discriminated against our pro-life organization. In fact, the court held that, because of the backroom deliberations, it couldn’t determine if there was direct discrimination. The court said that this lack of transparency and discretion to discriminate is exactly the sort of thing the First Amendment was created to prevent. The court did not in any way exonerate Associated Students Inc. or the university.
The evidence is clear. The entire ASI budget was about $1.2 million (more now since they raised the fee). With only around $30,000 of that available for the more than 100 registered student organizations to draw on for their various activities, as well as to cover travel to academic conferences, there isn’t much to go around—unless you are a favored group.
For example, about $300,000 that might have gone toward student activities was instead funneled into two student centers (established and funded by ASI), the LGBTQ Pride Center and Gender Equity Center. Both were established to advocate on behalf of underrepresented students facing discrimination on campus—a laudable goal, as far as it goes.
However, the centers also used their generous funding to put on events like the “Pleasure Party” (an orgasm workshop involving sex toy giveaways) and “Kink 101” (an interactive seminar with a guest speaker paid to talk on bondage, domination, and sadomasochism). One wonders why organizations established to advocate for underrepresented students are allowed to use resources in this way.
CSUSM claims the settlement resulting from my lawsuit was a “joint agreement”—which is like saying the Treaty of Paris in 1783 was England’s “joint agreement” to recognize American Independence. What was jointly agreed was that Britain had lost the war.
[RELATED: Pro-life group celebrates legal victory over 'unconstitutional' campus policy]
Students forced to pay into a fund that supposedly benefits “the student body” should—as members of that body—be able to use some of the funds they’ve contributed to engage in the advocacy they deem important…not just choose from whatever events and political agendas a few elitists will endorse. No social movement of consequence ever made history by being rammed down people’s throats.
No student—whatever their beliefs—should be denied the freedom to engage in advocacy on the issues that matter to them most. Which is why my settlement with CSUSM is a decision everyone can, and should, celebrate.
Nathan Apodaca attended Cal State San Marcos, where he served as president of the on-campus Students for Life chapter.
Follow Alliance Defending Freedom on Twitter: @AllianceDefends