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Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

Citation. 22 Ill.515 U.S. 819, 115 S. Ct. 2510, 132 L. Ed. 2d 700 (1995)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioners brought suit after respondents refused to allot them student activities funds for their organization, Wide Awake Productions, which was organized to publish Wide Awake, a Christian philosophical magazine.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

This case stands for the proposition that a university cannot use the Establishment Clause as a means for suppressing the speech of a publication, when it seeks to exercise its First Amendment rights to freedom of the press.


A group of students formed a Contracted Independent Organization (CIO) at the University of Virginia, entitled Wide Awake Productions (WAP), which was organized for the purpose of publishing a magazine, which expressed Christian philosophical and religious viewpoints. When the Petitioners, Rosenberger and other members of WAP (Petitioners), submitted for funds from the Student Activities Fund (to which they were entitled, due to their CIO status) for printing costs, they were summarily turned down, because their publication expressed religious viewpoints, which might be construed as the views of the public university. The Petitioners filed suit, alleging that the Respondents, the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia’s (Respondent), refusal to allot them a portion of the Student Activities Funds was an abridgment of their First Amendment Rights.
The District Court granted summary judgment for the Respondent, noting that the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution) prohibited it from funding religiously-motivated activities. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.


The underlying question in this case is whether a school’s refusal to fund a religiously motivated activity, under its Establishment Clause Obligations, can be allowed to abrogate the freedom of the press enjoyed by a student-run magazine.


The Supreme Court reversed the holdings of the lower courts noting that the Establishment Clause cannot be invoked when engaging in impermissible viewpoint-regulation. Particularly, in this case, the student organization had met all requirements to receive student activity funding, after which they were turned down, because they desired to publish a Christian magazine. The school invoked the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, refusing to sanction a religious activity; however, in doing this, the school also sought to regulate viewpoint by disallowing a religious organization the same funds that were available to non-religious organizations.


Justice David Souter (J. Souter) dissented, noting that through its holding the Supreme Court approved State funding of a religious activity, in abrogation of the Establishment Clause.
Concurrence. J. O’Connor and J. Thomas concurred. In her concurrence, Justice O’Connor focused on the fact that the student activities fund actually came from the students, and not the state; thus, the establishment clause argument posed by the university did not have merit. Justice Thomas concurred, agreeing fully with the published opinion.


When a student-run newspaper seeks to print religious materials, it runs afoul if the publication’s freedom of the press if it is denied funding, to which it is entitled, under the guise of the Establishment Clause. In other words, a university cannot hide behind the establishment clause when it seeks to regulate student viewpoints. All student organizations must be treated equally.

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