Constitutional Council rules Treasury denial of College Republicans speaker unconstitutional  

| Junior News Editor

Student Union’s (SU) Constitutional Council determined that SU Treasury demonstrated political bias when representatives chose not to fund a speaker appeal from the Washington University College Republicans (WUCR), a violation of SU’s Constitution, in a unanimous opinion released on April 5. 

WUCR requested nearly $7,000 from Treasury to bring conservative economist Dr. Arthur Laffer to campus. After deliberation by Treasury representatives, they decided not to fund the event.

After attending the Treasury meeting, freshman Tim Mellman brought the issue to Constitutional Council, SU’s judicial body composed of five undergraduate students. The Council accepted his request and ruled in their nineteen-page opinion that Treasury violated Article 14, which states, “All constituents shall be given equal opportunity and equal treatment under the rules, regulations, law and Constitution of Student Union.” 

A day after the opinion was released, the constitution was amended by a vote from the student body during the SU election, changing Article 14 so that it is now framed around equity as opposed to equality. The article now reads: “All constituents shall be given equitable treatment under the rules, regulations, law, and Constitution of Student Union.” 

Freshman Meris Damjanovic, a Treasury representative who testified at the Council’s hearing, stated that he was interested to see how the opinion would be impacted by the fact that the Article it cited was substantially changed. 

“I understand how they came to their conclusion based on the constitution as it stood at the time, but obviously, it has changed,” he said. “A large part of this was based on Article 14, which was the equality clause and is now the equity clause.”

The opinion began with a summary of why Treasury was in violation of Article 14 and noted that moving forward, the Council will be able to use their ruling on the WUCR appeal as precedent to help inform other interpretations of the constitution. 

“As a matter of constitutionality, Treasury cannot deny funding for an event on the basis of political discrimination pursuant to the equality clause of the constitution,” the opinion reads. “In this case, the Council finds that Treasury’s decision created a differential outcome and contained pervasive malice, negligence, or other unusual circumstances.”

In his request, Mellman wrote the assumption made by treasurers that Laffer would potentially say something racist or bigoted could constitute discrimination on the basis of political leaning, which he believed could violate the constitution. 

While the opinion ruled that Treasury had engaged in political discrimination, it did not outline a standard for what constitutes discrimination. This issue was referenced in a concurrence written by sophomore Ben Ewer, an Associate Justice on the Council.

Ewer agreed with the decision made in the unanimous opinion but he wrote that the Council should express further rationale to establish precedent for why discrimination was present. 

“It is unclear to me how the majority can assert political discrimination is protected under the Equality Clause without a clear standard for what a violation entails,” Ewer wrote. 

The Constitutional Council collected evidence by reviewing minutes from that night’s Treasury meeting, information from Campus Life, and listening to testimony from the parties involved. Among those who testified was junior Mishka Narasimhan, the Speaker of the Treasury at the time the appeal was made. 

“It was clear that the body as a whole exhibited some sort of political bias,” Narasimhan said. 

In the opinion, the Council quoted Treasury minutes directly: “‘[t]his Treasury does not feel comfortable funding the speaker due to the nature of his beliefs.’”

In addition, the opinion connected the above quote to Narasimhan’s testimony from the hearing: “This accords with the Speaker of the Treasury’s testimony that the speaker’s political beliefs were a factor in the body’s decision not to fund the speech.”

Some representatives argued that the quote generalized the decision making process, especially given that it was not said by a representative during the meeting. Narasimhan added it to the minutes document after the meeting to add context. 

“I just added that in because I thought it would make the minutes more comprehensive,” Narasimhan said. “It is a generalization, it wasn’t that X number of Treasury representatives believed that, but it was one of the general arguments that came up.” 

Junior Jason Zhang, who finished his term on Treasury at the end of this semester, expressed disagreement with the decision because it relied on the quote from the minutes. Zhang was one of five Treasury representatives who testified at the hearing. 

“No one explicitly said as rationale that we should not fund the speaker because of their views,” said Zhang. 

Zhang stated that he believed that the decision Treasury made was the correct one.

“If I could go back in time,” Zhang said, “I would probably still make the same decision as before, because I think the rationale that Treasury used was solid. The decision was made because of the cost of the speaker and some of the safety concerns associated with the speaker.”

Narasimhan explained that representatives were messaging in a Slack channel during the discussion about a statement Laffer made where he said that certain minority groups were not worth paying $15 an hour.

“[Texting in the Slack] was unorthodox,” Narasimhan said, “So for the sake of comprehension I thought I would include it in the minutes, but it isn’t part of our procedure, and honestly, it shouldn’t be. We’re not here to have two separate discussions: one in front of the student group and one not in front of the student group.” 

The ruling to “vacate” Treasury’s decision means that the appeal has been removed from their ongoing record, which is significant because typically Treasury representatives rely on precedent when they make decisions about how to fund similar appeals in the future.

Even though the Council determined that Treasury’s decision was unconstitutional, they did not remand the decision, which would result in the appeal being sent back to Treasury for reconsideration, nor did they choose to fund the group themselves because of extenuating circumstances. 

Initially, WUCR had presented an appeal that requested a $5,000 honorarium for Laffer to come to campus, which had been negotiated down from his standard $25,000. After the appeal was denied by Treasury, Laffer’s team first told WUCR via email he would be willing to speak for free, but Laffer followed up one day later and said that he was no longer willing to speak at WashU. 

Junior Nathaniel Hope, WUCR President, explained that Laffer was upset with Treasury’s decision and concerned about potential protests, saying that the decision “put a bad taste in [his] mouth.”

Hope said that WUCR is currently trying to raise the complete $25,000 honorarium after Laffer’s team told him they believed it was a “real offer,” and The Weidenbaum Center, a public policy and economy research institute at WashU, has offered to cover half of the honorarium. 

Hope also expressed that he was grateful for the Council’s opinion.

“I am very thankful that groups that may have different ideas or views than Treasury members can now rest in the fact that the Constitutional Council has made it even more specifically clear that we cannot be denied funding on the basis of our beliefs,” Hope said.

He continued by explaining how this decision will impact other student groups. 

“This protection isn’t just for College Republicans but for groups on campus whose viewpoints might not be as common in the entire student body,” Hope said. “So this has the effect of helping marginalized groups.” 

Narasimhan stated that she believes there are potential changes that will reduce potential bias in speaker appeals, such as allocating funding without knowing who the proposed speaker is. 

“These speaker appeals basically put us in situations where we control whether this event happens or not,” Narasimhan said. “By proxy, we are programming for the group, which is not our role.”

Thinking ahead to next fall, Narasimhan stated she believes it will be crucial for the next Speaker to host a discussion about the WUCR appeal, given that the Council’s opinion came out after their final meeting, relating this appeal to the Amala Ekpunobi issue from last semester. 

“How we can take these two extremes and go forward in some sort of middle ground that will appease both the student group and the student body is a huge question,” Narasimhan said. “But we have to tackle it and we now have a lot of evidence to help us.”

Narasimhan explained the difficult balance that Treasury representatives are faced with appeals for political speakers. 

“We’re given our power because the student body votes us into these positions,” Narasimhan said. “Some might argue that because our roles involve allocating [the Student Activities Fee], we have the right to make political decisions, but we’re still bound to the constraints of the constitution, which has specific guidelines on equality. Treasury representatives are in a tough situation when you have to balance what your constituents might believe politically with what our constitution outlines as our goals.”

A representative from the Constitutional Council declined to comment, citing their standard policy not to comment on their cases. 

Disclaimer: Tim Mellman is Student Life’s Newsletter Editor as well as a regularly contributing photographer who has taken photos of SU meetings throughout the year. He did not attend the Treasury meeting on March 21 on behalf of the newspaper, nor did he contribute to writing or editing this article. 


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