Distribution of student fees deemed fair by court

WISCONSIN — A six-year dispute stemming from student opposition to their fees funding campus liberal organizations came one step closer to ending last week. A federal appeals court ruled that the University of Wisconsin’s current system for distributing mandatory student fees does not violate the First Amendment rights of students.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found the standards and procedures the school had enacted to distribute student fees to student-run organizations were, with a few exceptions, adequate to ensure “viewpoint neutrality.” The U.S. Supreme Court set that requirement in 2000 when it ruled in an earlier incarnation of the case that requiring students to pay fees to support organizations they disagreed with was not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court returned the case back to the lower courts to determine if the Wisconsin system was in fact viewpoint neutral.

The Seventh Circuit said the university had met its obligations and in the process offered guidance as to how other universities could ensure that their efforts to distribute student fees was constitutional.

Circuit Judge Daniel A. Manion, writing for the Seventh Circuit panel, stated that giving unlimited leeway, or “unbridled discretion” to those who distribute funds is prohibited in order to ensure decisions are viewpoint neutral. The court noted with approval the steps Wisconsin had taken to avoid that situation. Members of the bodies that delegated funds were required to take an oath not to give funding based on the views of the groups submitting requests. The funding bodies also had to record their votes and state in writing why funding was denied to an organization. And the university provided an appeals process for groups that were denied funding.

However, the court did reject guidelines that allowed a funding body to consider how long a group had existed or that took into account past fee funding received by the group. The court said both criteria could be used to reflect viewpoint discrimination. Furthermore, the court said that the number of students involved in or served by a group could only be considered as long as it was not used to determine the popularity of the group or its message.

And the Court ruled that because the university had no guidelines for the distribution of travel grants to student organizations, no grants could be awarded until viewpoint neutral guidelines were in place.

Student media, along with all student-run organizations at universities in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, now will have clearer protection from receiving less or no student fee funds based on objections to the views they express. But this decision means more organizations could be eligible for funds, and established student groups could receive less money overall to compensate for the influx.

The court decision is in response to a 1996 lawsuit by three law students who claimed the University of Wisconsin was violating their First Amendment rights by using their mandatory student fees to fund campus organizations that expressed views they disagreed with.

“The university has argued repeatedly in court that it should not be required to make any changes to its student fee system,” said Jordan Lorence, attorney for the students. “And only because of [this] litigation has the university made any changes at all.”

The students have not yet decided if the appellate court’s ruling will be appealed, Lorence said.

Fry v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 2002 WL 31165130 (7th Cir. Oct. 1, 2002)