Supreme Court to hear activity fees case

by Amit Anand | 11/1/99 6:00am

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments this week on the constitutionality of student activity fees that could drastically alter the way colleges and universities collect such funds from students.

Although the case is not likely to affect Dartmouth because it is a private institution, the Supreme Court ruling could reach every major state college and university.

The case emerged after students at the University of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the school, challenging the funding of certain programs and organizations such as the International Socialist Organization and the gay and lesbian campus center with their student activity fees.

"Our defense is that these organizations make up a forum of free speech that is an integral part of the University of Wisconsin system," said Susan Ullman, the lawyer representing the university.

She said that 15 to 18 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and the Association of American Colleges were filing briefs supporting the University.

Dean of Student Life Holly Sateia said she sees no direct impact from the Supreme Court's decision, but added that "we won't ignore it. We are looking at our system and how the money is disbursed."

But it is unlikely for Dartmouth to follow suit even if the Supreme Court rules that mandatory student fees are unconstitutional, she said.

According to Sateia, the fee "supports recognized student groups that are necessary for the whole educational program at Dartmouth" and are nonrefundable.

"Just like the College would not refund tuition if the students object to the material being taught, we don't refund student activity fees if students object to the types of organizations that are being funded," Sateia said.

Currently, Dartmouth undergraduates are required to pay $50 per term to cover student activities. The money -- which is expected to total about $600,000 this year -- is handed over the Undergraduate Finance Committee for distribution to student groups.

Sateia said she had not received any complaints from students regarding the disbursement of funds.

Other Ivy League schools also charge mandatory student activities fees similar to Dartmouth.

Brown University charged $57 per undergraduate this year and has accumulated more than $600,000. The money is disbursed by the student-composed Undergraduate Finance Board.

According to the university's assistant manager of the Student Union, Phillip O'Hara, the money include political groups, gay and lesbian organizations and ethnic organizations.

"If people object to where the money is going, they would have to go to the UFB," he said. However, he could not recall any complaints regarding the disbursement of student activity funds.

Princeton University charges either $80 or $85 depending on class, out of which $45 is given to the Student Government for disbursement to various organizations, said Nancy Burnett, Office Manager at the Dean of Undergraduates.

The administration does not decide on who gets the money, she said.

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