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NU will settle lawsuit with Christian student group, change policy for fee allocation

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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Christian student organization have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging the group was denied funding to bring a speaker to campus.

As part of the agreement, the NU Board of Regents will consider revising a policy governing how mandatory fees are allocated to student groups that was last updated more than four decades ago when it meets on Dec. 2.

The change was spurred by Ratio Christi — a Latin phrase that translate to “the reason for Christ” — which alleged in an October 2021 lawsuit that UNL’s Fee Allocation Committee improperly denied its request for $1,500 to bring a speaker to campus.

A registered student organization since 2018, Ratio Christi sought to invite Robert Audi, a former UNL faculty member who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame, to deliver a lecture in April 2021.

But that request was turned down after the University Program Council, which disperses $270,000 in student fees, cited concerns “about the nature of the event.” Specifically, the committee told Ratio Christi the Event Fund could not be used to pay for “speakers of a political or ideological nature.”

The committee suggested Ratio Christi invite another speaker to promote a counter viewpoint, but the Christian student group said it wanted to sponsor a speaker and not host a debate, and pointed to other speakers who were compensated from the fund without a differing viewpoint being offered.

Ratio Christi’s members ultimately paid for Audi to come to UNL themselves.

In its lawsuit, Ratio Christi asked a federal judge to find UNL’s system for allocating student activity fees in violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments. It also asked the court to block UNL from charging its members fees while those policies were active, and to reimburse it for expenses paid.

U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard wrote in July the arguments that UNL’s mandatory student fee allocation violated Ratio Christi’s constitutional rights were “somewhat difficult to follow,” but conceded the university’s policy “seems to be riddled with differing policies whose applications are unclear.”

Gerrard dismissed some of the claims for damages brought by Ratio Christi, but paved the way for the lawsuit to go to trial, which ultimately led both sides to settle the case out of court.

An order from Magistrate Judge Susan Bazis set a Nov. 30 deadline for both sides to jointly file to dismiss the case once the agreement was reached. The final details of the settlement are still being worked out, NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee said.

“The parties are working diligently to finalize the terms of the settlement,” Lee said. “We will be able to share more soon.”

While the final details of the settlement are yet to be made public, it’s likely UNL will reimburse Ratio Christi the $1,500 it paid to bring Audi to campus.

The longest-lasting change brought about by the lawsuit will be in university policy requiring a “viewpoint-neutral set of factors” that student organizations can evaluate when deciding whether or not to provide fee-based funding for a speaker.

Those factors include whether or not the speaker “advances the educational mission of the university,” that the speaker is covering a different topic than other speakers brought to campus that year, the academic reputation of the speaker, the level of student interest, the university’s ability to ensure the speaker’s security, and the cost of bringing the speaker to campus.

“The student organization may not consider the speaker’s point of view on any issue in deciding whether or not to bring the speaker to campus and must comply with all applicable constitutional requirements,” the proposed revision states.

Last updated in 1979, the policy revision also calls on student government bodies to develop an appeal process for any requests for student fees that are denied in the future.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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