High Court hears mandatory student fee case

In a case that will have significant consequences for alternative student media if not the “official” student newspaper on America’s public college campuses, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Nov. 9 about whether students should be forced to fund student activities, even if some of those activities or groups advocate political or ideological views with which they disagree.

The case arose after students at the University of Wisconsin, who describe themselves as conservative Christians, objected to paying student activity fees that were used to fund the International Socialist Organization, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center and 16 other “political or ideological” groups whose views were at odds with their own.

They claimed the mandatory fees were a form of “coerced speech.” All told, 125 student groups were funded by the student government. During the 1996 school year, when the case began, students paid about $15 per semester to support such campus groups. While school officials acknowledge that liberal and leftist groups outnumber conservative ones on the UW campus, funding is available to any student group that applies provided it meets requirements that have nothing to with the groups political leanings.

During oral arguments, Justice John Paul Stevens asked the students’ attorney whether his clients would object to being forced to financially support a student newspaper or yearbook. The attorney responded that their case did not contest such support.

Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that funding for an official student newspaper could be distinguished from political or ideological expression by other campus organizations and the students’ lawyer agreed. Although it is difficult to read much into questions raised by justices at Supreme Court oral arguments, the exchange suggested that even those justices who were most sympathetic to the students’ claims were concerned about limiting the impact of the case on funding for the mainstream campus press.

The Student Press Law Center and other student media groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case warning the court that almost all student media — both mainstream and alternative — engage in political or ideological speech that could be targeted for funding cuts by students unhappy with their editorial content. A decision in the case is expected before the end of June.

Case: Southworth v. Grebe, No. 98-1189