Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth

The University of Wisconsin required that students pay an activity fee to support campus services and extracurricular activities. Wisconsin’s student government distributed part of the money pooled from this fee to student organizations that applied for funding. Parties involved in the case testified that the student government reviewed organization applications for funding in a “viewpoint-neutral fashion.” Student organizations could also obtain funding from the activity fee through a referendum vote of the Wisconsin student body.

Current and former students brought suit in district court, claiming that the distribution of activity fee money to student organizations espousing “political and ideological expression offensive to their personal beliefs” violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. The district court found that the use of funds in this way was compelled speech and not permissible under the Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, granting the plaintiffs the right to opt out of contributing to groups they oppose.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower courts. The Court held 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 viewpoint-neutral system, the university can’t choose to either grant or deny funds to a student group based on the group’s ideological, religious, or political views. The Court found that a Court-imposed system allowing students to opt out of contributing to groups they oppose could be disruptive and expensive to the point of destroying the funding program meant to promote extracurricular speech.

However, the court found the constitutionality of allowing the school to distribute money by a referendum vote of the student body questionable because such a vote could potentially fail to be viewpoint neutral and sent that question back to a lower court. Almost nine months after the Supreme Court ruling, the district court found the university’s method of allocating fees did not meet the viewpoint-neutral standard imposed by the Supreme Court.