Students Sue over Discriminatory Funding at the University of Michigan

Marilee Turscak

A libertarian student group has filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan, arguing that campus leaders allocating student organization funds violated university policy that “prohibit[s] content and viewpoint discrimination in a university’s allocation of mandatory student fee funding.”

While the student government used mandatory student fees to fund a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. for members of a pro-affirmative action group on campus, it denied a $1,000 reimbursement to the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), who invited Jennifer Gratz, a civil rights advocate and the plaintiff of the 2003 Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, to give a presentation. The talk, titled “Diversity in Race vs. Diversity in Ideas: The Michigan Affirmative Action Debate,” was deemed too “political” by the student government.

Even though the YAL followed the appropriate measures to receive reimbursements, the university denied its request.

The lawsuit contends that the student government uses student fees to fund political events all the time and cannot pick and choose which events to include. Gratz is well-known for her opposition of racial preferences in Michigan and helped pass the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative in 2006, which rendered the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy unconstitutional. The libertarian group argues that the university discriminated against it by refusing to fund this event.

A week prior to the event, the campus’s pro-affirmative action group, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), bused students to D.C. to advocate on behalf of affirmative action outside of the court during the arguments for Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

BAMN organizer Kate Stenvig stated that her group has been denied funding “plenty of times” and said that while BAMN defends the rights of all student organizations to receive funding, “we reject any claim that white or conservative student groups are being discriminated against.”

The suit contends, however, that despite the university’s policies against funding political and religious activities of student organizations, campus leaders have provided funding for groups such as Amnesty International, Migrant and Immigrant Rights Advocacy, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the past, the university has not shied away from expressing its support for affirmative action, and after the passage of Proposal 2 in 2006, University President Mary Sue Coleman vowed to maintain the university’s commitment to diversity. Along with other universities, the University of Michigan submitted an amicus brief in support of racial preferences in the 2013 Supreme Court case Fisher v. Texas.

Despite the fact that BAMN has been denied funding for events at various times, the fact that it has received any funding at all when the university purportedly forbids the funding of political groups is a sign that the school shows ideology-based favoritism toward certain student organizations. This appears to be an instance of bias against a student group that has taken an unpopular stand against racial discrimination.

The university has yet to respond to the litigation.

Image: "UniversityofMichiganLawLibrary" by AndrewHome // CC BY-SA

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