Whoever asked the American Center for Law and Justice to weigh in on the Graduate Student Association funding scandal should have told them the whole story.
Last week, the ACLJ, a staunchly anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and anti-women’s rights legal advocacy group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, issued a letter to the university claiming that the GSA’s denial of student funds to groups that endorsed or were “connected to” pro-divestment positions in any way might actually have been legal. While there is ample evidence that their argument is legally wrong, it is just as important for the public to realize that the main condition underlying the ACLJ’s argument also turns out to be completely hypothetical. Here’s what happened:
The ACLJ’s argument rests on the premise that the GSA had passed a resolution adopting a position of neutrality on the issue of Israel-Palestine. In fact, as the GSA Cabinet wrote in its Nov. 24 statement of clarification, “GSA does not have any policy or resolution regarding inclusion or exclusion of any political, ideological or religious viewpoints in its event funding. Such a policy or resolution could only be passed by the GSA Forum, and no resolution to that effect has been considered or voted on by GSA Forum.” The Cabinet continued, stating that it had considered a “conceptual resolution” of neutrality, but that “in order to go into effect as a guideline for GSA, it would be required to be noticed and voted on by the GSA Forum, which has not occurred.”
So there you have it: The GSA itself says there’s no resolution of neutrality. In fact, statements made by multiple members of the GSA go even further, proving that the neutrality position was hastily contrived only after the funding restrictions were put in place – clearly an attempt to cover up or retroactively justify the restrictions.
So what does this mean? First, it means that the ACLJ is in the position of having written a set of legal arguments that have absolutely no foundation. Its legal letter is a castle made of sand. Second, and much more importantly, it means
that the GSA Cabinet never had the authority to issue funding restrictions to any group.
It is, however, worth considering what would be different if the GSA had indeed passed a neutrality resolution. Such a resolution would still not allow the GSA to make funding determinations based on the political views of its recipients. It is still illegal to say to students that in order to receive student funding, they had to have “zero connection” to other students who take a particular political position.
Let’s consider for a moment what behavior the ACLJ is defending. The emails sent on behalf of the GSA to a funding recipient said, “if we are aware that (you are) engaging with (Divest from Israel) – directly or indirectly – in the organization of this event – we’ll have to withdraw or recoup our allocation.” How can this be enforced except through Orwellian monitoring of graduate students’ speech and activity? Are we ready to turn the GSA Cabinet into the speech police for all the student groups that receive its funding, to make sure they don’t “endorse” or “connect” with anyone, “directly or indirectly,” whose speech is forbidden? Will the GSA be empowered to determine what speech crosses their lines and what doesn’t?
Ultimately, that type of speech policing is what the ACLJ is defending – a level of intrusion into individuals’ lives that fits quite well with its other legal work, like fighting what it calls the “radical homosexual agenda” and working to deny women the right to an abortion.
So what is the solution to this mess? First, while the administration shouldn’t be involved in day-to-day graduate governance, it can provide advice and training that would educate student leaders about the law and reduce the chances they might break it. Second, the GSA needs more transparency and internal oversight so that one arm can’t simply make up rules that the other arm never signed off on. And third, the GSA should adopt clear guidelines that prevent this from happening again. Right now, this last reform is the most realistic. Last week’s GSA Forum meeting resulted in the addition of such an amendment to the agenda for the next meeting in winter quarter. Anyone who is concerned about free speech should hope that it passes unanimously.