Supreme Court hears Wisconsin student activity fees case

by Amit Anand | 11/17/99 6:00am

The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of student activity fees last week as it heard arguments in the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth case.

The Court will decide in the next few months whether a public university can compel students to support all campus student organizations regardless of the students' viewpoints. The decision could have a significant impact on the way that student groups nationwide are funded.

The University's main position was that an institution of learning needs to foster an open forum where students can discuss a variety of ideas.

"The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System has determined that an essential function of its educational mission is to encourage students to engage in the expression of ideas of interest to them, by providing a modest subsidy to facilitate expressive activity," the University said in its legal brief.

Wisconsin Assistant District Attorney Susan Ullman told the Court that the funds are distributed to all organizations regardless of their viewpoint, so the First Amendment is not an issue because students are not compelled to support one specific type of speech.

Ullman also argued that it is important for a University to create an environment where issues can be freely discussed.

"These organizations make up a forum of free speech that is an integral part of the University of Wisconsin system," she said.

Jordan Lorence, representing the plaintiffs, argued that the student activity funds cannot be neutrally distributed and therefore the students are compelled to support groups that they do not support.

"The University has a constitutional duty to respect the right of conscience of the students," Lorence said. "It's an obvious issue of compelled speech."

Lorence argued that there have been quite a few precedents, including a case involving unions, where the Supreme Court ruled that union members do not have to support political groups with their union dues.

"There is a difference between a union and a university," University of Wisconsin Law Professor William Church said. "Because this is a university, it needs to enhance diversity, which means supporting some groups that would be hurt if the students were able to withdraw their funding."

The case was filed by four former University of Wisconsin law students in 1996. Later that year, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. After an appeal from the Board of Regents, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs as well. The Supreme Court will announce its decision this spring.

The students filed the case naming 18 specific organizations, including the Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Interest Group, International Socialist Organization, Amnesty International and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Campus Center. There are more than 450 registered campus organizations at University of Wisconsin at Madison, according to the Dean of Students Office.

Students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are required to pay $445 for each academic year in addition to tuition. About 15% of the total funds are distributed to the Student Government for further disbursement. On average, each group gets about 10 or 30 cents from each student.

"One of the University's major arguments is that each student only contributes a few dollars. It's not an amount to get too excited about," Church said.

Lawyers from both sides were questioned by the Justices. A major issue of debate was the increased funding of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group as a result of a student referendum. Justice Anthony Kennedy said that giving additional funds as a result of a referendum was not viewpoint-neutral. On the other hand, Justice Kennedy remarked that institutions of learning have always fostered an exchange of ideas.

"My guess is that the decision will be pretty close," Church said. "This is a case that the Court knows a lot about. Many of the Justices have themselves taught in Universities or Graduate Schools and are quite familiar with the structure of these institutions."

Considering a decision in favor of the plaintiffs, the University will be forced to reconsider its current activity fee structure, according to the University of Wisconsin's website.

"My guess is that this will not bankrupt the University," Church remarked. "It wouldn't be difficult to offer refunds, as most students don't really care about which organizations get the funding."

Private institutions like Dartmouth will not be affected because the First Amendment is concerned with protecting the powers of the people against the government and not between two private parties.

Dartmouth students currently pay $50 a term in student activities fees. Students at other Ivy League schools pay anywhere from $50 to $87 per term.