SUNY-Albany returns activities fee to students

A New York university must refund two students’ activity fees after they sued the school over the way the money was allocated and spent, a federal judge ruled last month.

The decision said that the State University of New York at Albany’s use of referendums by their Student Association to determine funding is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was initially brought against SUNY-Albany’s Student Association in December 2004 by Eric Amidon, president of the conservative student group Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). It alleged that the Student Association denied the group funding on the basis of its political beliefs.
CFACT, which has been a recognized student organization at SUNY-Albany since 2002 and claims a membership of over 100 students, had received $1200 from the Student Association, according to an article in the Albany Student Press.

The campus chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which Amidon called a “liberal-leaning” organization, however, received $106,000, based on a campus-wide referendum to gauge student interest in the group and to determine whether $5 of each student’s $80 activity fee should be allocated to it.

CFACT’s request for a similar amount was denied by the Student Association because the group was new and had no track record to justify the additional money, the Albany Times Union reported. When the group’s request for a referendum like the one used for NYPIRG was denied as well, CFACT sued.
In his ruling on the lawsuit, handed down November 7, U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd wrote that student activity fees money must be allocated to groups without regard to those groups’ viewpoints. Using referendums turns funding into a popularity contest, he wrote; the Student Association must use more objective or “viewpoint-neutral” criteria.

“Using a majoritarian viewpoint-based factor is nonsensical,” his opinion stated. “The whole point of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as majority views. That is essentially what is at risk in this case — unpopular speech will be made more expensive than popular speech because the student association will subsidize the popular speech.”

The recent CMU debate over the November 20 showing of the pornographic film Pirates in McConomy Auditorium has turned a spotlight on student group funding here as well.

“I know there have been some complaints to the Student Senate and the GSA [Graduate Student Assembly],” student body vice president for finance Nicholas Scocozzo said — although he added that not many complaints were directed to him specifically.

Scocozzo is a member of the Joint Funding Committee (JFC), the group that makes decisions on annual funding for student groups.

GSA president Brian Fifarek, another JFC member, said he had also received a number of complaints about the pornography, but students have stopped short of demanding an activities fee refund. “From the people I have heard from, no one has asked for their funds to be returned,” he said. “What students are concerned of is that the general pool of student and University resources are being used to show the TBA.”

Activities fee money is distributed so widely, Fifarek said, that it would be difficult to compute how much is going to a specific event. He said he believes it is “really not in this University’s best interest” to provide students with a means of withdrawing their money from the system.

And differences between the CMU and SUNY-Albany funding systems indicate that the results of the SUNY-Albany legal decision aren’t likely to have much effect here.

“There are not really any referendums [in CMU’s funding process], so we’re not dealing with any of this stuff,” Scocozzo said.

He said that the JFC does not give money to academic, political, or religious events, although groups falling into these categories can receive funding for social or cultural activities.

Fifarek said that funding decisions on groups are “based on the specific budget they write and other sources of funding they’re attempting to use.” In the case of a small group wishing to put on a costly event for the entire campus, Fifarek said funding would be based on the expected attendance at the event and not the size of the group.

“We try to be as balanced as possible” in the allocations, Scocozzo said. “There’s no mathematical formula here.”

At CMU, 90 percent of every undergrad’s — and 35 percent of every graduate student’s — 82-dollar activity fee is turned over to the JFC, which allocates that money to student organizations after a months-long budgeting and review process.

Student groups that have been officially recognized by the Committee on Student Organizations can submit yearly budgets to the JFC if they are deemed eligible to receive funding, Fifarek said.
Scocozzo said that the group is currently working on these eligibility reviews in preparation for next year’s funding.

Then the JFC meets with representatives from each group in order to go over their budgets line by line and make a first round of cuts, Scocozzo said.

Next year’s final budgets for all student groups must be approved at a joint meeting of the Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly before May 1.

The joint meeting gives an opportunity to both groups and individual students to appeal funding decisions or to express concerns with allocations.“A good way to do it would be to go through your student senator or GSA representative,” who could then ask for a budget item to be discussed or removed, Fifarek said.

He added that this method was used last spring by some of the Greek organizations on campus in an effort to appeal for an increase in allocations.