GAINESVILLE – The University of Florida has agreed to make policy changes and pay $66,000 to settle a lawsuit that Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed in December on behalf of a student group after the university failed to distribute money collected from mandatory student fees to student organizations in a fair, viewpoint-neutral manner.
In response to the students’ lawsuit, the university eliminated policies that were used to deny funding to the non-partisan Young Americans for Freedom chapter and replaced them with more fair and viewpoint-neutral policies. In light of the changes, YAF voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit Wednesday.
“Public universities are uniquely expected to be a free marketplace of ideas, not an assembly line for one type of thought,” said ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton. “Thankfully, in response to this lawsuit, the University of Florida recognized the errors embedded within its policies by adopting changes that no longer force YAF members to pay into a system that funds opposing viewpoints and discriminates against their own. While students shouldn’t have to file a federal lawsuit to vindicate their rights, we’re grateful that the university quickly suspended its discriminatory policy this past spring and worked closely with us to meet our clients’ goals and respect their freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
Under the previous policy, the university required students to pay a mandatory activity and service fee that is used to fund student organizations’ expression, but the school allowed the student government to deny YAF and other groups equal access to those funds. The university denied YAF funding to bring in conservative speakers even though it granted funding to other organizations to bring in progressive speakers. The lawsuit, Young Americans for Freedom v. University of Florida, challenged the policy that granted the student government free rein to allocate funds from mandatory student fees to certain student groups for advocacy that the student government favored.
As part of the settlement agreement, the student government eliminated the policy that granted it discretion to deny funding and instead enacted a policy requiring approval of all requests that meet viewpoint-neutral criteria. If requests surpass available funding, funds are to be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis, with proportional distribution if the requests come in at the same time.
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s voters and civic leaders,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “That’s why it’s so important that public universities exemplify the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.”
“The University of Florida YAF chapter deserves the same equal access to university resources as every other student organization on campus,” said YAF Spokesman Spencer Brown. “We commend the University of Florida for correcting its policies that treated students differently because of their beliefs. YAF chapters engaged in similar battles can now look to UF YAF as trailblazers in the fight for First and 14th Amendment rights on campus. YAF is grateful our lawsuit remedied this shameful inequity at the University of Florida and reminds all colleges that they ought to be on notice: If you violate students’ rights, you will be sued.”
The university’s $66,000 settlement fee will include payment to YAF in damages for the denial of their funding requests for speakers’ fees. The amount will also reimburse the student fees paid by two YAF members under the old policy and cover costs and attorneys’ fees. Russell LaPeer, one of nearly 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for the YAF chapter in the case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.