High court hears student fees case

The Supreme Court heard debate Tuesday on whether mandatory student fees at state universities should support student organizations promoting political beliefs.

The case, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin vs. Southworth, stems from a University of Wisconsin-Madison complaint that student fees are used to promote liberal organizations, and students who do not support these groups are required to pay nonetheless.

We really felt the university engaged in unconstitutional policy by forcing students.to fund activities of private student organizations not directly associated with the university, said Scott Southworth, one of the three original plaintiffs.

The university and its Board of Regents said the mandatory student fees help provide educational experiences for students.

The basic mission of the university is to provide a forum for all kinds of ideas, said Katharine Lyall, president of the University of Wisconsin system. We provide the resources that enable many more viewpoints to be expressed on campus.

Lower courts have sided with Southworth, saying the mandatory fee violates the students’ constitutional rights.

The high court Tuesday challenged the university’s claim that the school is providing both services to student groups and promoting a forum for ideas.

You could call any speech service to students, helping them learn things, Justice Antonin Scalia said.

But other members of the court, particularly Justice Stephen Breyer, said minority opinions would not be represented without distribution of funds in a viewpoint-neutral fashion, as the school describes its procedure.

The First Amendment supports the funding of speech that is unpopular, Breyer said.

No group was discriminated, said Susan Ullman, assistant attorney general in Madison, representing the Board of Regents. There is no evidence a group was denied funding for their event.

Other justices argued that utilizing student funds for partisan means was akin to using the auditorium for the same purpose, which would not be contested.

Universities have been places where ideas were debated, Justice Anthony Kennedy said. You’re asking us to do something against tradition.

Justices were concerned that funds could be used for directly partisan activities, such as lobbying. Ullman said all requests for funding go through administrative checks.

Student groups can receive funding through several methods at the Madison campus. The General Student Services Funds provides money for organizations that provide a service to the university. The Associated Students of Madison, the student government, provides grants for an organization’s trips, events or operations, said Nikhil Joglekar, an ASM representative and member of the Student Services Finance Committee.

Students also vote every two years by referendum on whether certain national lobbying organizations, like the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group and the United States Student Association, should receive funding, Joglekar said.

Southworth and the other plaintiffs said the university should allow students to opt out of the mandatory fee program, taking their money out of the pot if they disagreed with the distribution. They particularly objected to some 18 liberal student organizations, including the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Campus Center, UW Greens and the International Socialist Organization.

Students have a First Amendment right not to speak, said Jordan Lorence, attorney for the defendants. A wide range of debate will not disappear or diminish by allowing students to opt out.

Lorence said the primary source of income for many student groups is through membership fees, not allotments from the mandatory fee.

But Lyall said coordinating the viewpoints of students and the distributions of their funds would get complicated.

If we get into the check-off system, it will begin to erode the (student fee) system, she said.

The justices questioned the difference between the student groups receiving money from the mandatory fee and from tuition dollars. Lorence said university control of the event is implicit in tuition funding, which is covered by the government speech doctrine, allowing arms of the government to promote ideas or viewpoints with government funding that may not be universally accepted.

The purpose of government speech is to allow government to take positions on issues, Scalia said. The government is entitled to take positions.

But Lorence said organizations do not have the same educational mission as the school.

The court is expected to reach a decision sometime next year. The case could impact state institutions across the country that use mandatory student fees as a way of funding student organizations.

Lower courts throughout the country have taken different stances on the role of student fees on college campuses. Some schools now have check-off boxes where students can choose not to give to certain organizations. If the students win, schools may have to reformat their process of funding student groups.

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