Supreme Court hears arguments in Wisonsin student fees case

\nWASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments\nin November in a case that could dramatically affect the future\nof the public college student media by determining whether students\ncan be forced to fund student activities that advocate political\nor ideological views.

The case, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin\nSystem v. Southworth, arose after five conservative Christian\nstudents at the University of Wisconsin at Madison objected to\npaying student activity fees that were used to fund the International\nSocialist Organization, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender\nCampus Center and 16 other “political or ideological”\ngroups whose views were at odds with their own. They claimed the\nmandatory fees were a form of “coerced speech” and thus\na violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights.

The students took the university to court, and both the federal\ndistrict court and the federal court of appeals ruled the mandatory\nactivity fee system unconstitutional.

During the 1996 school year, when the case began, 125 student\ngroups were funded by a portion of the $165.75 student activity\nfee paid by students each semester. The university’s system makes\nfunding available to any student group that applies for it, provided\nit meets requirements that have nothing to with the groups’ political\nleanings.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the justices\nappeared to be struggling to find some middle ground between the\nopposing sides. Many justices seemed to reject the constitutionality\nof a funding mechanism that put the funding for a particular organization\nup to a campus-wide student vote as viewpoint-based discrimination.\nBut others seemed to believe that the funding system as a whole\nsupported legitimate university interests. Several questioned\nwhether a legal distinction existed between mandatory funding\nfor student organizations and tuition support for professors who\nexpress unpopular views.

The good news for the student press is that no one in the courtroom\nseemed inclined to object to funding for the official campus student\nmedia, even when it may take editorial stances on political or\nideological issues. In fact, a comment about the reputation of\nstudent newspapers as leaning to the left politically got a big\nlaugh out of the courtroom. Justice John Paul Stevens asked the\nstudents’ attorney, Jordan W. Lorence, whether his clients would\nobject to a system that forced students to financially support\na student newspaper even if it espoused communist views. Lorence\nresponded that their case did not contest such support.

Justice Antonin Scalia, whose earlier questions suggested his\nsupport for the students’ claims, jumped in to say that funding\nfor an official student newspaper could be distinguished from\npolitical or ideological expression by other campus organizations.\nLorence agreed. The exchange suggested that even those justices\nmost sympathetic to the students’ claims might be concerned about\nlimiting the impact of the case on funding for the mainstream\ncampus press.

However, the fate of less traditional publications is much\nless clear. The students in this case, for example, objected to\nthe Campus Women’s Center receiving fees to support a newsletter\nthat took positions on abortion rights. It remains to be seen\nhow the Court could draw a meaningful legal distinction between\nfunding for the newsletter of a campus women’s group and funding\nfor a student newspaper that limited its editorial pages to only\none perspective on a political issue.

The Student Press Law Center and other student media groups\nfiled a friend-of-the-court brief in the case warning the Court\nthat almost all student media-both mainstream and alternative-engage\nin political or ideological speech and could be targeted for funding\ncuts by students unhappy with their editorial content if the lower\ncourt’s decision is upheld.

A decision in the case is expected before the end of June.