Student fees raise questions of free speech

Supreme Court weighs if using student fees to fund variety of campusorganizations is unconstitutional.

Why would a University of Wisconsin law student who describes himself as a conservative Christian contribute money to the International Socialist Organization, the Militant Student Union, and the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual Campus Center?

The answer, according to Scott Southworth, and other like-minded students, is that they are forced by school administrators to make the contributions as a condition of attending and graduating from the university.

The University of Wisconsin requires every student to pay a $167 student-activity fee each semester. Of that fee, roughly $33 goes to support the efforts of more than 180 student organizations, including the socialists, militants, and bisexuals.

To Mr. Southworth, forced support for groups he considers repugnant violates his First Amendment right to associate with whom he chooses. His lawyers argue in the words of Thomas Jefferson: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."

To university officials, rather than treading on free speech, the mandatory student fees help promote a diverse public forum on the Madison, Wis., campus, a forum that includes an eclectic spectrum of political causes and student interests. They point to the wide variety of campus-based groups and resulting opportunities for debate and contemplation as the epitome of the First Amendment in action.

So far, a federal judge and appeals-court panel have agreed with Southworth.

Today, the dispute moves to the US Supreme Court where the justices must decide whether public universities can use mandatory student fees to fund groups that advocate political and social positions some students find offensive.

If Southworth wins, the case could sharply limit the quality and quantity of debate among on-campus student groups at Wisconsin and other public universities. It could lead to opt-out provisions in which students are permitted to pick and choose which groups will receive funds from their student fees.

If the university wins, it would bolster the right of controversial organizations to receive such funding, and encourage their further involvement on college campuses.

In a larger sense, the case raises the question of whether tolerance and respect for diverse viewpoints should be an essential part of the university experience. And it raises the flip side of that question: Should a university show tolerance and respect for students who choose not to support certain groups and ideas?

"Government cannot compel individuals to speak or to fund the advocacy of others," wrote Jordan Lorence in support of Southworth. "Students should be able to attend the university without the Board of Regents requiring them to fund private campus groups that express views they oppose."

Creating a diverse campus

Lawyers for the university respond that use of mandatory fees to create an atmosphere of open debate on campus does not violate free speech. They argue that the student-fee money supports the ability of all the groups to speak out, including conservative and Christian groups, rather than promoting any one group.

Supporters also argue that student fees are part of the democratic process on the university, a process judges should be reluctant to tamper with.

"These fees really are not donations. We look at them as the equivalent of taxes levied by elected student representatives to fund services that the majority deems appropriate," says Mark Hazelbaker, who filed a brief on behalf of student-government leaders at the university. "It would be no more appropriate for people to opt out of paying their student fees than it would have been for people who protested against the Vietnam War to opt out of paying the taxes that financed [that war]."

Southworth's supporters reject the tax analogy. They view the student-fee program as a form of intellectual oppression. "The university claims that compelled support for abhorrent ideas is necessary to change the content of the marketplace of ideas for the 'greater good.' But the pursuit of truth must never be sacrificed to official orthodoxy," wrote Michael Dean in a brief filed on behalf of the First Freedoms Foundation in Waukesha, Wis. "The individual mind and conscience must always remain holy and inviolable."

Religious rights

Others see the case as an attempt by religious conservatives to impose their views on the entire university. "They want the right to de-fund all other groups that they perceive as inimical to their religious point of view," says Mitchel Grotch, general counsel of the Student Rights Law Center in Bayside Terrace, N.Y. He says Southworth's arguments are couched in political and ideological terms, but that the essence of the case is religion and an effort to expand the power of religious conservatives.

The justices could take several different approaches to the case.

The court may focus on the fact that the university allocates money to student groups without regard to the content of the group's message or cause. It may also rule, as it has in earlier cases, that once taxes are paid to the government, the payer loses any direct claim on how the tax revenue will be spent by the government. Both of these approaches favor the university.

Lawyers for Southworth are hoping the justices view the case through the prism of earlier Supreme Court decisions involving members of a union and members of a bar association. In both those cases the court ruled that such organizations were not free to use mandatory fees to support political activities that their members object to.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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