Questions remain regarding OSPIRG funding

The Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) claims in its promotional literature to provide students with the opportunity to get involved in real political issues while still in college.

Members of Portland State University’s OSPIRG chapter, who have seen last year’s $120,000 budget cut to at most $21,000, may have gotten more politics than they bargained for.

In a letter dated May 2, PSU President Daniel Bernstine approved a student activities budget that funded OSPIRG at the lower level conditionally, but not a change that would have returned OSPIRG’s funding to the higher level.

The letter effectively ended OSPIRG’s attempt to win money back through a referendum process.

Bernstine’s veto was widely anticipated following an opinion from the Oregon Attorney General’s Office that deemed the referendum process unconstitutional.

“We hope it will bring some closure,” said Associate Vice provost of Student Affairs Wendy Endress, who advises the Student Fee Committee.

Yet closure is elusive as questions remain as to the fate of OSPIRG at PSU, and to the referendum process.

Both Kristin Wallace, former student body president, and Amara Marino, current student body president, have written letters to Bernstine supporting the referendum process.

“The student government believes the referendum is the most democratic process,” said Kari Koch, OSPIRG campus organizer at PSU.

Democratic or not, the established standard for student activity funding is viewpoint neutrality. In University of Wisconsin v. Southworth et al, the Supreme Court decided partisan student groups could be funded as long as the process that awarded them money was itself non-partisan.

The highest court in the nation did not rule on whether the referendum process, in which students vote to fund an activity group, adhered to the standard of viewpoint neutrality.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of six Supreme Court justices, all but ruled out the possibility of a viewpoint neutral referendum.

“The student referendum aspect of the program for funding speech and expressive activities, however, appears to be inconsistent with the viewpoint neutrality requirement,” Kennedy wrote.

The University of Wisconsin responded by eliminating the referendum process and the point was never decided.

In a letter to Bernstine, Oregon Assistant Attorney General Kelly Gabliks advised against referenda.

“To be confident PSU’s fee allocation is lawful, the ASPSU constitution would need to eliminate the use of initiatives or referenda with respect to decisions of this nature,” Gabliks wrote.

OSPIRG lawyers argue otherwise. In a letter to Marino, Molly Cochran wrote that the Supreme Court’s view is that referenda alone are an unconstitutional way to fund student groups. Yet the court did not rule out the use of referenda in combination with viewpoint neutral student fee distribution, Cochran wrote. Such a combination is the case at Oregon State University and Southern Oregon University, according to Cochran.

The question of whether referenda and initiatives are constitutional is, at PSU, now academic.

According to Endress, PSU made a “rule” March 6 that referenda were not acceptable.

At present, however, the Student Fee Committee guidelines still include provisions for referenda and initiatives.

“We have no idea where this rule came from. It could have been that someone wrote it on the back of a napkin,” said Adam Zavala, communications director for PSU’s student government.

No mention was made of the rule in Bernstine’s letter vetoing the referendum. Instead, Bernstine cited the attorney general’s opinion, as well as the Student Fee Committee’s continued opposition to funding OSPIRG. Bernstine went on to question whether the student senate even had the authority to attach the recommendations to the budget.

Endress said that the Student Fee Committee was reviewing proposed changes to the guidelines that would eliminate referenda and initiatives. The changes would need senate approval.

If the changes are not passed, Endress said, Student Funding Committee guidelines could end up at odds with university policy.

A no vote would render the guidelines outlining referenda and initiatives “meaningless,” Endress said.