Justices Face Conflict in Campus Financing: Activities Fees Paid for Activists' Views

Article excerpt

Supreme Court justices yesterday tried to unravel a conflict between traditional university financing practices and an individual's First Amendment right not to finance views that offend him.

Susan Ullman, Wisconsin assistant attorney general, asked the court to reverse rulings that bar a university from spending mandatory student fees of $331.50 a year to finance campus activists of all stripes, as is the practice on many campuses.

"African-American groups can be compelled to support the KKK and Jewish groups would have to support Nazis," said Jordan Lorence of Fairfax, a lawyer for Scott H. Southworth, who sued the University of Wisconsin while a law student in 1996.

"That's part of the life of a university. . . . You're asking us to do something that is against the tradition of the university," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said of the widespread practice of disbursing student activity fees to student organizations, including activist groups.

"I just wonder if the universities are going to crumble if they don't do this thing," Justice Antonin Scalia said.

Mr. Lorence said the University of Wisconsin has collected student fees since 1848 but began financing activist groups during the Vietnam War. Among groups Mr. Southworth objected to supporting were the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center, Students of the National Organization for Women, the UW Greens, the Madison AIDS Support Network, Amnesty International and the International Socialist Organization.

"It is important to facilitate the speech of diverse groups," Miss Ullman said, calling the program a public forum that excludes only partisan politics.

"That's rather an odd forum, isn't it?" Justice David H. Souter said of the politics ban.

"It excludes a rather narrow band," Miss Ullman replied.

"It excludes a narrow band that is the basic reason for First Amendment protection," Justice Souter responded.

"Just partisan politics, though. That seems to be a viewpoint," Justice Scalia commented, noting that governments may not discriminate on the basis of a person's viewpoint. …