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Anti-abortion student group sues Ball State alleging discrimination

June 14, 2018

An anti-abortion student group at Ball State University is suing university officials alleging free speech and equal protection violations, claiming the university discriminated by declining to allocate student activity fees to group while giving fees to other student-run political organizations.

The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Students for Life at Ball State University and three student members — Julia Weis, Renee Harding and Nora Hopf — in the Indiana Southern District Court on Wednesday. The complaint names the Ball State Board of Trustees, President Geoffrey S. Mearns, dean and vice president for student affairs Kay Bales and members of the Student Activity Fee Committee as defendants.

According to the complaint, Students for Life at Ball State — an affiliate of Students for Life of America, a national organization — applied to receive roughly $300 from the pool of mandatory student activity fees to “design and distribute educational resource material for pregnant and parenting students at Ball State University.” The Student Activity Fee Committee denied the request, citing the university’s policy of not funding “(a)ny Organization which engages in activities, advocacy, or speech in order to advance a particular political interest, religious faith, or ideology.” As a result, the organization paid $289.45 to foot the cost of the pro-life materials.

However, according to the complaint, student activity fees were used to fund other political and ideological student organizations, including Feminists for Action, the Secular Student Alliance and Spectrum. Feminists for Action organized a pro-choice rally and lobbied Congress to continue funding Planned Parenthood, while the Secular Student Alliance hosted a “God is Dead” event and Spectrum advocated for “social affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning lifestyles.”

Though neither Students for Life nor the three political groups mentioned in the complaint are included on the list of 12 student organizations that receive direct funding from the Student Activity Committee, those organizations can receive a portion of the student activity fees if they are co-sponsored by one of the 12 core organizations. Students for Life sought the $300 through the Student Government Association, a core organization, which forwarded the request to the committee, leading to the denial.

In addition to claiming free speech and equal protection violations, the student plaintiffs allege they are forced to subsidize views they do not agree with because they are required to pay student activity fees, which were allocated to organizations such as Feminists for Action and the Secular Student Alliance. The plaintiffs also allege the defendants are given “unbridled discretion” to allocate the fees in a manner that is not viewpoint neutral.

“Ball State University says it pledges to ‘value the intrinsic worth of every member of the community,’ but its student government is playing favorites and stifling free speech,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said in a Wednesday statement. “If BSU wants to respect every member of its community, it will give Students for Life, along with other groups, equal footing. We support the free speech rights of all students, encourage the open exchange of ideas, and ask that the rights of pro-life students be respected as their peers’ rights are.”

Ball State did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations in the complaint, which seeks a declaratory judgment that the plaintiffs’ First and 14th Amendment rights were violated. The three students and Students for Life also seek an injunction to prevent university officials “from enforcing the Student Activity Fee Policy and the portions of the Student Organization Handbook challenged in this complaint.” Finally, the complaint seeks $289.45 in compensatory damages, as well as nominal damages and attorney fees.

The case of Students for Life at Ball State University, et al. v. Rick Hall, et al., 1:18-cv-1799, has been assigned to Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker and referred to Magistrate Tim Baker.

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