Activity fee sparks lawsuit

Former student senator sues college over voting process

Lane’s Board of Education moved Wednesday evening to remove students’ ability to vote on changes to the mandatory student activity fee in an attempt to quickly resolve a lawsuit filed by former ASLCC Senator Francisco Gomez.

In his suit, filed in August 2015, Gomez argues the Board of Education violated his constitutional First Amendment rights when it assessed him the student activity fee.

The thrust of Gomez’s suit revolves around the legality of the student-voting process, but he laid bare his true motivation to file suit in an interview with The Torch.

Gomez opposes what he describes as Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group’s use of student activity fees to fund a lobbyist to advocate on the organization’s behalf.

Gomez said he believes the proposed board policy will change things for OSPIRG.

“OSPIRG has been violating Lane’s educational purposes and viewpoint neutrality for many years. They have been taking students’ money and [funding] their own partisan political purposes that has nothing to do with Lane,” Gomez said.

Lane President Mary Spilde disagrees with Gomez’s assessment of how the new policy will affect OSPIRG. “I don’t see any change in OSPIRG. They can’t use their fee for political activity.”

The board responded to the lawsuit at its Wednesday Jan. 15 meeting by initiating the process of changing the policy relating to the fee. While the proposed policy will eliminate student voting on the fee, it also will create a new fee oversight committee.

“Would it help if we have a straw vote this evening and signal to the president our inclination to pass this? What options are available to us?” board member Rosie Pryor asked after expressing concerns about a potential increase in legal fees.

Ultimately, the board chose not to suspend its normal process.

“We believe once the board acts on this, the lawsuit is going to go away,” President Spilde told the board.

The fee at the center of Gomez’s suit is assessed to every credit student at Lane’s main campus. The fee, currently $56 per term, is collected by the college under the authority of the board and the money is distributed to various student organizations.

The Supreme Court of the United States holds that public colleges and universities are allowed to charge every student a mandatory student activity fee. However, the decisions of whether or not to approve fee requests must be made in adherence with a legal doctrine known as “viewpoint neutrality.”

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Virginia violated the First Amendment rights of a student when the University refused to pay the printing costs for a Christian student newspaper with funds collected through a mandatory student activity fee. The University rejected the request on the basis of the religious nature of the organization.

The Court found that by considering the religious viewpoint of the group’s publication when making its funding decision, rather than merely considering whether or not the group’s request would further the stated goals of the University of Virginia, the University had violated the student’s constitutional rights.

Lane’s current board policy relating to student activity fees states that activities eligible for funding must be “consistent with the college mission and goals.”

Lane students can currently participate in a referendum-style voting process via their MyLane accounts each spring. Students are asked by the board whether the student activity fee should be raised to support a new or existing student organization.

The board, however, maintains a policy (BP 715) that the results of student voting are merely advisory.

Board of Education Chair Tony McCown said he did not believe the proposed board policy would prevent students from using funds collected from mandatory student activity fees from expressing their views, even in regards to contentious issues.

McCown did acknowledge, however, that the board likely violated Gomez’s rights.

“I think the courts will kind of show that. If they do, it wasn’t intentional. We are trying to provide a robust process to avoid that from happening,” McCown said.

The board will hear a second reading and potentially vote on the proposed board policy at its next meeting on Feb. 3, 2016.

The impact of the proposed board policy changes on student organizations remains unclear.