BOSTON — Most parents say part of the college experience is the company you keep. And most schools don't let you down. Looking for a Christian club? It's there. Veggie advocacy? No problem. Students can sift through groups, applying and resigning as they wish. But some law school students at the University of Wisconsin feel things are a little too free. Specifically, they're questioning where their student fees are going - and they've taken the issue to court.
If successful, their lawsuit could mean that student groups across the country could be funded only through "check-off" boxes on tuition statements, instead of through student governments. At UW-Madison, a campus with close to 800 student organizations, this presents a logistical nightmare. More important, it denies students the opportunity to decide for themselves, through a representative process, which organizations merit funding.
The thrust of the suit is simple: The university's system of student-fee distribution threatens freedoms of expression and association, both of which are guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Currently, the elected student-finance board gives a small percentage of tuition dollars to campus groups. These fees, which average about $30 per student per year, are distributed to groups ranging from the College Republicans to the International Socialist Organization, with a host of apolitical service groups occupying the middle.
The lawsuit, bankrolled by a Christian legal foundation, mirrors similar suits at state universities in Oregon, Minnesota, and California. If the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals gives it a nod, the suit will be a real blow to a working system.
Granted, I've seen student government put on some fairly amazing displays of ineptitude and inefficiency in my four years of college. But I've been impressed by the way the system reflects the American political process, allowing fresh ideas a fair chance at public funding, and giving students from all political viewpoints a chance to express themselves.
The college experience would be incredibly empty if deprived of its variety of outlets for activism and idealism. What's particularly disturbing about it is the threat it represents to organizations that provide service as well as advocacy. When you de-fund the Campus Womens' Center (one of the groups specifically targeted for its pro-choice stance), you take away the support, counseling, and education that the center offers. When you attack groups that work as support centers for minorities on campus you send a clear message: "You are not welcome." In many cases, no funding means no voice. Period.
It seems unfair that the proposed system would back a "nonpartisan" student newspaper, or concerts and art exhibitions, but not support services from groups that reach out to vulnerable students while actively campaigning on their behalf.
The future of these lawsuits is uncertain, but students at public universities across the country should be asking themselves a simple question: "Is an open forum for student groups worth what I pay for it?" While I may disagree with some of the groups on campus, my answer is "yes."
* James Norton is a senior majoring in history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is editor of The Daily Cardinal, a campus newspaper.