Court rules fee distribution constitutional

WISCONSIN ‘ A federal appeals court ruled in October that the system the University of Wisconsin uses to distribute mandatory student fees to campus organizations is constitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found the procedures Wisconsin had enacted for distributing student fees to student organizations is, with a few exceptions, adequate to ensure ‘viewpoint neutrality.’

The U.S. Supreme Court set the ‘viewpoint neutrality’ requirement in 2000 when it ruled earlier in 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 Wisconsin’s system was in fact viewpoint neutral.

The Seventh Circuit said the university had met its obligation by ensuring funding decisions are not made based on the views being expressed by those seeking funding.

Circuit Judge Daniel Manion, writing for the panel, stated that giving unlimited leeway, or ‘unbridled discretion,’ to those who distribute funds would not ensure decisions are viewpoint neutral.

The court approved the steps Wisconsin had taken to avoid this unbridled discretion. Members of the fund-distributing bodies are required take an oath to ensure viewpoint neutrality, keep records of their votes and state in writing the reasons for denying fees to a group. The university provided an appeals process for groups that were denied funding.

The court, however, rejected guidelines that allowed funding bodies to consider a group’s previous funding or its length of existence. 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.

The court decision is in response to a 1996 lawsuit filed by three law students who objected to funding liberal student groups through student fees because they disagreed with the groups’ views.

Southworth v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Wisconsin System, 307 F.3d 566 (7th Cir. 2002)