U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear mandatory student fee case

The United States Supreme Court agreed March 29 to review a decision out of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals about whether public college students have the right to refuse to support organizations that use mandatory student fees to engage in political speech.

Legal experts have warned that the case could have a significant impact on how America’s public college student media operate.

The appellate court ruled late last year that students at the University of Wisconsin had the right to refuse to fund “political or ideological” student groups whose views were at odds with their own. While the students challenging the school’s policy, who describe themselves as conservative Christians, said they were not targeting mainstream student newspapers, the actual effect of the court’s ruling on student media was unclear.

For example, the appellate court decision left open the question of how future courts would distinguish between publications that were “political and ideological” and those that were not. Most student newspapers include editorials or opinion columns that could certainly be categorized as political or ideological and the court failed to establish clear guidelines for determining how much of such political speech could be published before a non-political student newspaper could be categorized differently.

While mainstream student newspapers might have been able to argue around the decision, some special-interest student publications would not have been so lucky. For example, one of the student groups at the University of Wisconsin whose funding would be affected by the appellate courts decision was the Campus Women’s Center. The appellate 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. It also looked at the Web site of The Ten Percent Society, which advocated same-sex marriages, to categorize that group as political and ideological. Clearly, such analysis, if allowed to stand, would spell trouble for some student media.

The Student Press Law Center plans to file an amicus brief in the case, which will probably be heard by the Supreme Court sometime next fall.

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