University bans marijuana advocacy group, religious organization while atheists, pro-choice groups receive funding

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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A marijuana advocacy group at Northern Illinois University could be effectively banned from the school’s campus, opening up the potential for a First Amendment case against the institute of higher learning. And like smoking weed itself, the case is bringing together several odd coalitions, as questions are being raised about the school’s definition of student organization, which appears to cover pro-choice and antiwar groups but not religious-tolerance organizations and pro-marijuana legalization advocates.

Northern Illinois’ definition of “political and religious” and “social justice, advocacy” groups means organizations like the NIU Atheists, Agnostics, and Free Thinkers; Advocates for Choice; and Campus Antiwar Network have access to funds to promote their causes. Those denied funding include Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations; the Model U.N.; and the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife.

University students are required to pay a mandatory activity fee, usually administered by the student government, that allows all student groups access to those funds. Once student groups prove they put the funds to good use (such as setting up and promoting educational events), the student government divvies out the fee.

That divvying, however, can’t be as political as the student government appears to have made it.

After first being denied recognition by the university’s Student Association Senate (SAS), the NIU chapter of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) reapplied, only to have the SAS offer a vague statement on the difference between “advocacy” and “political” groups. The SAS’s definition prevents several groups, including the SSDP, from receiving funding from students’ fees. Now, denied a second time for “advocacy” status, the SSDP could be banned entirely from meeting and promoting on campus for two years.

The NIU SSDP chapter is now considering legal action with the help of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, if meetings with school administrators this week do not result in alternative outcomes.

“For too long, campuses have utilized hopelessly vague policies that allow them to favor some student groups and kick others off campus,” wrote FIRE president Greg Lukianoff in a press release, later adding that “at a public college like NIU, this kind of double standard is not only unfair but laughably unconstitutional.”

“You can’t say the groups like atheists are allowed to discuss Christianity, but the Christians aren’t,” FIRE President of Programs Adam Kissel told The Daily Caller. “It’s almost random.”

As of Tuesday night, SSDP chapter president Jeremy Orbach said he was hoping for an “intervention by the executive powers of the student association” to over turn the original decision. Basically, Orbach is seeking a change via the SAS’s own Appellate Court. If that is unsuccessful, Orbach and FIRE may have to make a serious case before the school’s Supreme Court — the university administration.

Orbach said SSDP and FIRE have been in close talks with university administrators, speaking with officials as recently as Tuesday night, after the SAS denied funding again on Monday. Orbach said he expects a meeting between the two groups next week will result in a permanent solution.

“We’ve been debating over the last 48 hours on whether or not we want to file [legal papers against the university], but we are still, at this point, trying to avoid any lawyers or litigation,” Orbach told TheDC.

Kissel told TheDC that the organization and SSDP are pressing the administration to “get to work immediately on changing its constitutional policies” and overrule the decisions of the SAS as the “university is liable [for] whatever First Amendment [issue] caused by this association.”

Orbach said that “initially [NIU administrators] they didn’t think it was very high on their priorities but as things began to develop and the allegations in public, the administration began to take it a lot more seriously.”

Both Orbach and Kissel said they are hopeful that the SSDP and NIU can come to some agreement in the coming weeks. For now, however, the uproar has put students advocating marijuana legalization — along with others promoting religious tolerance — in limbo.

Orbach, who has put all his time and effort into this real-world civics class, said he is suffering academically but considers the fight an important one for marijuana advocates.

Representatives for the university were unavailable for comment.

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