Supreme Court rules mandatory student fees constitutional
Unanimous decision overturns lower court's finding in Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Supreme Court ruled today that public colleges and universities may use money from mandatory student fees to fund campus groups that engage in political speech, as long as the funding system is viewpoint-neutral.
In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected the argument by a group of students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison that the university's fee system violates their First Amendment rights by forcing them to fund groups with which they disagree on political, religious or ideological grounds.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, "The First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral."
The Court's ruling in the case, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, reversed an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which had held that the university's fee system was unconstitutional.
In his opinion, Kennedy cited the clear interest of the university in promoting the exchange of ideas. Although the university's fee-allocation program inevitably subsidizes speech with which some students disagree, Kennedy, said a Court-imposed system allowing students to opt out of contributing to groups they oppose "could be so disruptive and expensive that the program to support extracurricular speech would be ineffective." "The First Amendment does not require the University to put the program at risk," he said.
Had the Court ruled in favor of the students protesting the fee system, many public colleges would have been forced to revise, or even eliminate, their student-fee programs, possibly changing them to allow individual students to select the groups they want to fund or excluding groups with political, ideological or religious objectives entirely. Many free-press advocates had worried about the negative impact a ruling in favor of the students could have had on college student news media. If the Court had ruled the other way, student media could have lost student-fee funding or been prohibited from publishing editorials or endorsing candidates for office.
The Court did not uphold one aspect of the University of Wisconsin's student fee system, in which a vote by the majority of the student government can take funding away from or give funding to a campus group. Kennedy said in his opinion that this process did not appear to be viewpoint-neutral, and may "undermine the constitutional protection the program requires." The justices directed a lower court to rule on the constitutionality of this funding method.
The Court's decision in the Wisconsin case will likely affect the outcomes of several cases challenging the constitutionality of student fee systems that are currently pending in federal courts.
The text of the Supreme Court's decision in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworthcan be found online at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-1189.ZO.html.