PRESS RELEASE: College journalism groups urge Court to protect political speech in student newspapers

Univ. of Wisconsin case threatens to cut off funding to campus publications that publish political editorials

Arlington, Va. -- Groups representing America's college student media asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to overturn a lower court ruling that they warned "could threaten the very existence of student media on hundreds of public college campuses nationwide."

At issue is a decision handed down late last year by a federal appellate court in Chicago finding that students at the University of Wisconsin had the right to refuse to pay student activity fees to the school that were used to support "political or ideological" student groups whose views were at odds with their own. While the students challenging the school's policy said they were not targeting mainstream student newspapers, the effect of the court's ruling on student media could be devastating.

The student media groups warned that the appellate court decision gave no clear indication of how a school could distinguish between publications that were impermissibly "political and ideological" and those that were not. Most college student newspapers include editorials or opinion columns that offer political or ideological viewpoints; the lower court failed to establish guidelines for determining how many of such editorials or columns could be published before a student newspaper could have its funding withdrawn.

In a friend of the court brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court by the Student Press Law Center, the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Advisers, Inc., the groups warned that the appellate court's decision -- if not overturned -- could seriously undermine campus free expression, which the Supreme Court has said in previous decisions should be afforded the highest degree of First Amendment protection. The brief emphasized the long-recognized value of vital campus student media.

"Reporting and commenting on issues and candidates for political office is one of the most important functions of any newspaper," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "It is disturbing to think that a college newspaper would have to give up that right in order to continue publishing."

Using statistics gathered from recent national surveys of the student media, the groups warned of the appellate court decision's potential impact on America's college press.

"Virtually all student news media provide some sort of political commentary or opinion...." [Additionally, a] significant percentage of public college newspapers and broadcast stations receive student activity fee funding, and many could not publish without it."

The brief was written by attorneys at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, a Minneapolis-based law firm.

The Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case this fall.

Case: University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, No. 98-1189

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A copy of the brief is available on the Student Press Law Center's Web site at: For more information: Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center (703) 807-1904 Lucy Dalglish, Esq., Dorsey & Whitney LLP Counsel for Amici Curiae (612) 340-2600

Associated Collegiate Press, College Media Advisers, news, University of Wisconsin