A group of University of Minnesota students is suing the flagship school over how it distributes fees that fund student groups, saying its methods are unconstitutional and violate viewpoint neutrality requirements.

U students pay about $900 per year in service fees that fund campus health care services, recreation center dues, student unions and student groups, among other things. Student groups can apply for funding under guidelines meant to be viewpoint neutral.

Students Evan Smith and Isaac Smith and student association Viewpoint Neutrality Now! argue that the school unconstitutionally uses the fees to "provide preferential treatment" to nine cultural student organizations that receive free lounge space inside Coffman Memorial Union on the Twin Cities campus. The leases in Coffman, a campus building that is subsidized by student fees, are estimated to be worth $30,000 per year, according to the lawsuit.

The nine groups are the Black Student Union, La Raza Student Cultural Center, Disabled Student Cultural Center, Feminist Student Activist Collective, Queer Student Cultural Center, Asian-American Student Union, Minnesota International Student Association, American Indian Student Cultural Center and Al-Madinah Cultural Center. No other student groups can apply for a lease to these lounge spaces, the lawsuit says, because the U treats the cultural centers as legacies with rights against termination of their leases.

"The University of Minnesota has created a student-services-fee-funded shrine on the second floor of Coffman Memorial Union to worship the great god of political correctness," said attorney Erick Kaardal, who filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court. "In order to do so, the university trashes the First Amendment. The public expects the university to take care of and educate its students, not to abuse their student services fees."

A statement from the U on Saturday said the school is "analyzing appropriate next steps to defend the university and its processes."

The lawsuit also takes issue with the U's funding of campus media groups, which go through a different application process from other groups and are eligible for more funding.

The Minnesota Daily newspaper received $512,400 in 2018-2019 and Radio K received $314,400, according to the complaint. Student groups that are not designated media can only receive up to $55,000 per year.

Not just any student organization can be deemed a media group. The U's vice provost for Student Affairs must invite them to apply for the designation. And groups that are denied an invitation cannot appeal, the lawsuit states.

The complaint also states the U's fee distribution process excludes partisan groups and groups that have existed for less than a year.

In an interview, Kaardal said the plaintiffs want the U to change its policies so any student group can apply for the lounge spaces in Coffman Memorial Union.

New and partisan student groups should be able to apply for funding and students should have an appeal process for potential violations of viewpoint neutrality, Kaardal added.

"If this wasn't student service fee funded, there wouldn't be a problem," he said. "When it uses student service fees, it has to be viewpoint neutral."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234 Twitter: @ryanfaircloth