Court says students can refuse to pay for 'political' expression

WISCONSIN – A federal appellate court has ruled that students have the right to refuse to fund “political or ideological” student groups whose views are at odds with their own.

While the students challenging the school’s policy, who have described themselves as conservative Christians, say they are not targeting mainstream student newspapers, the actual effect of the court’s ruling on student media elsewhere is not so clear.

In late October the Seventh Circuit declined to reconsider its earlier decision that prevents the University of Wisconsin at Madison from using mandatory student-activity fees to finance certain student groups. The court directed the university to devise a fee system that did not force students to “financially subsidize speech with which they disagree.”

Under a newly proposed policy, students would be able to pick and choose which student groups they wished to fund with their student activity fee payment.

Dissenting judges in the case claimed that allowing students to withhold funding would limit the diversity of viewpoints on campus. One of the judges warned that some students will likely object to virtually every group, creating financial and administrative problems for university officials. She predicted that some institutions will respond to the decision by eliminating financing for student groups altogether.

“There is a crucial difference between a requirement to pay money to an organization that explicitly aims to subsidize one viewpoint to the exclusion of others…and a requirement to pay a fee to the [the student government] that creates a viewpoint-neutral forum, as is true of the student activity fee here,” the dissenters wrote.

In its earlier ruling, the court made a point of stressing that its decision only effected “organizations which engage in political and ideological activities, speech, and advocacy.” Funding for non-ideological organizations and the school’s official student newspaper was not at issue, the court said

It is not clear how future courts will distinguish between publications that are “political and ideological” and those that are not.

For example, most student newspapers include editorials or opinion columns that could certainly be categorized as political or ideological. The court failed to establish clear guidelines for determining how much of such political speech could be published before a nonpolitical student newspaper could be categorized differently.

The effect the court’s ruling will have on certain special-interest student publications is another question. For example, one of the student groups at the University of Wisconsin whose funding will be affected by the decision is the Campus Women’s Center. The court actually excerpted passages from the Center’s bimonthly newsletter, which opposed certain abortion regulations, to prove that the Center was political and ideological and therefore subject to funding restrictions.

The move to strike down mandatory fee policies appears to be picking up steam. In the last few months, for example, students in Ohio and Minnesota have filed similar lawsuits.