WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court ruled today thatpublic colleges and universities may use money from mandatorystudent fees to fund campus groups that engage in political speech,as long as the funding system is viewpoint-neutral.
In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected the argument bya group of students at the University of Wisconsin at Madisonthat the university’s fee system violates their First Amendmentrights by forcing them to fund groups with which they disagreeon political, religious or ideological grounds.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said,"The First Amendment permits a public university to chargeits students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitateextracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral."
The Court’s ruling in the case, Board of Regents of theUniversity of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, reversed anearlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the SeventhCircuit, which had held that the university’s fee system was unconstitutional.
In his opinion, Kennedy cited the clear interest of the universityin promoting the exchange of ideas. Although the university’sfee-allocation program inevitably subsidizes speech with whichsome students disagree, Kennedy, said a Court-imposed system allowingstudents to opt out of contributing to groups they oppose "couldbe so disruptive and expensive that the program to support extracurricularspeech would be ineffective." "The First Amendment does not require the University to putthe program at risk," he said.
Had the Court ruled in favor of the students protesting thefee system, many public colleges would have been forced to revise,or even eliminate, their student-fee programs, possibly changingthem to allow individual students to select the groups they wantto fund or excluding groups with political, ideological or religiousobjectives entirely.Many free-press advocates had worried about the negative impacta ruling in favor of the students could have had on college studentnews media. If the Court had ruled the other way, student mediacould have lost student-fee funding or been prohibited from publishingeditorials or endorsing candidates for office.
The Court did not uphold one aspect of the University of Wisconsin’sstudent fee system, in which a vote by the majority of the studentgovernment can take funding away from or give funding to a campusgroup. Kennedy said in his opinion that this process did not appearto be viewpoint-neutral, and may "undermine the constitutionalprotection the program requires." The justices directed alower court to rule on the constitutionality of this funding method.
The Court’s decision in the Wisconsin case will likely affectthe outcomes of several cases challenging the constitutionalityof student fee systems that are currently pending in federal courts.
The text of the Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Regentsof the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworthcan befound online at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-1189.ZO.html.