Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is the Use of Student Fees for Political Activism Constitutional?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is the Use of Student Fees for Political Activism Constitutional?

Article excerpt

Yes: Opponents of the current system simply seek to silence the voices of those with whom they disagree.


The U.S. Supreme Court characterizes our colleges and universities uniquely as "the marketplace of ideas." The allies of the plaintiffs in the Southworth vs. the University of Wisconsin case intend nothing less than the restraint of trade in the free market of ideas that animates the daily life of our colleges and universities. When their ideas fail to carry the day at a public institution such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, they seek refuge in judicial micromanagement of collegiate affairs.

Draped in the heady words of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, they allege tyranny where most people see an open forum, compelled association where others celebrate debate and opportunities for educational exchange, and ideological one-sidedness in the midst of representative democracy.

Most courts have rebuked attempts by off-campus interests to silence student speech, association and activities. With very few exceptions, our court system has recognized the important role universities serve in our society and the critical importance of broad educational experiences to fulfilling that role.

We would be poorer as a nation if student speech and activism were not part and parcel of the university experience. We would be heavy-handed and patronizing if students were not permitted to organize collectively to determine what is in their best interests. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin vs. Southworth, et al. is the latest in a line of cases challenging the use of mandatory student fees to fund a range of activities, including activities which may be described as political or ideological. In these cases, student plaintiffs allege that by imposing a mandatory fee to support student organizations with which the objecting students disagree, the university violates the students' First Amendment rights.

What is unique about the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Southworth, however, is that it is the only federal appellate court decision to strike down as unconstitutional the use of a mandatory general-activity fee to support a forum for campus speech.

The 7th Circuit's decision is not compelled by, but is in fact inimical to, the First Amendment. The core purpose of the First Amendment is to protect and nurture free expression, not to stifle it. Nothing in the First Amendment forbids state colleges and universities from creating a forum for student groups to engage in robust and spirited debate on any subject, especially political or ideological issues, so long as the university does not discriminate on the basis of a group's viewpoint. The 7th Circuit's view of the First Amendment would transform state university campuses into sterile ivory towers with student groups, newspapers and speakers' bureaus subject to strict censorship rules to ensure that they steer clear of "ideological" issues.

Let's retreat momentarily for a slice of context. The four most recent cases alleging compelled association through student fees -- arising from the University of Oregon, Lane (Ore.) Community College, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Minnesota -- share many similarities. Each is supported by or brought at the behest of off-campus institutions whose agendas transcend the parochial politics of campus activities -- for example, the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Alliance Defense Fund. Each complains of the receipt of student fees by so-called ideologically liberal organizations operated by students, representing a range of educational, cultural, social and/or political issues.

Each is fronted by one or more plaintiffs who, as students, tried unsuccessfully through student government or campus elections to eliminate activity-fee funding for the organizations they oppose.

The details of each campus-funding mechanism differ. …

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