If you’re not familiar with the concept of official student groups at state universities, here’s how it works in most cases….
A group of students can get together and form an organization (which may or may not be connected to a national organization) and get approved as an official student group (usually by submitting a set of by-laws, list of officers and getting a faculty advisor). Once approved, the group usually gets certain benefits, such as being able to check out university rooms for free for meetings and events, being able to promote their events and meetings through a variety of means on campus, and have the ability to apply for student fee money for the purpose of providing programming or other activities that are open to the student body as a whole.
Since state universities are government entities, they cannot by law discriminate based on viewpoint.
Northern Illinois University has an odd system. They differentiate between political organizations (campus Republicans and Democrats) and social advocacy organizations (including such things as anti-war organizations and pro-or-anti abortion groups). Political organizations are not allowed to apply for funds, but get the other benefits of being a student organization, social advocacy organizations can also apply for funds.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy was established as a social advocacy organization at NIU but was told by members of the student government, who apparently didn’t agree with their message, that they should apply as a political organization. The SSDP members felt that was wrong and that they shouldn’t be denied the option of applying for funding, so they went ahead and applied as a social advocacy organization. The NIU Student Association Senate denied their application completely, so now SSDP cannot even meet on campus.
“It’s clear that the NIU Student Association Senate is incapable of fairly imposing its policies on student groups and after speaking with lawyers and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we believe that the NIU Student Association Senate is in violation of the First Amendment,” explained Jonathan Perri, Associate Director at SSDP. “Unfortunately, it also seems that some members of the Senate are simply opposed to SSDP’s mission to promote an open and rational discussion about alternatives to current drug policies, including marijuana legalization, and that this may be the basis for their decision.”
SSDP has been an important voice of reform in this country (and internationally) by involving young people in issues of extreme importance. Just downstate at Illinois State University, where I function as faculty advisor for the SSDP chapter, the group is well received in the university community and their Constitutional rights are protected by both the student government and upper administration.
The student government at NIU is shooting themselves in the foot. They should welcome the debate that SSDP brings, and they should eliminate the bizarre and impractical distinction between political and social advocacy groups.