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Education Reporter

Appeals Court Restricts Distribution
of Mandatory Student Activity Fees

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CHICAGO, IL - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in August in Southworth v. Grebe that the University of Wisconsin-Madison may not use portions of students' mandatory activity fees to fund political organizations (See Education Reporter, Sept. 1998). The court ruled that these organizations do "engage in ideological and political advocacy, activities and speech, and cannot be constitutionally funded with objecting students' fees."

This decision upheld a 1996 district court ruling in favor of five University of Wisconsin-Madison students who sued the university for violating their First Amendment rights. The students objected to the fact that portions of their activity fees were being distributed to private organizations whose views they do not support. The fees were mandatory; students who refuse to pay the fees do not receive their grades or graduate.

Most U.S. state universities and colleges, including the University of Wisconsin, charge students an annual activity fee, part of which is used to fund campus student groups. These groups typically advocate leftwing, or even radical, positions on social and moral issues. In many colleges, the student government decides which organizations will receive funds, and the amounts can be sizeable. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison for example, a committee of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) distributed about $974,200 in student fees to private organizations during the 1995-96 school year.

Groups in receipt of this largesse (as cited in the court ruling) included the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG); the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Campus Center; the UW Greens; the Campus Women's Center; the Madison AIDS Support Network; the International Socialist Organization; the Militant Student Union; and Students of NOW.

WISPIRG received $49,500, and was found to have distributed $2,500 directly to its parent organization, USPIRG, for use in lobbying Congress and developing voter guides. The UW Greens and the Progressive Student Network (another group receiving student fees) lobbied the Wisconsin state legislature and distributed literature for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign on the Green Party ticket.

The Campus Women's Center received $34,200 in 1995-96, and used the funds to advocate its feminist political views. An article in its bimonthly newsletter urged readers to contact the center to learn how they could work against legislation the organization opposed.

A group called the Ten Percent Society also received funding, using its Internet site to advocate legislation legalizing same-sex marriages. Members of Amnesty International worked actively for the abolition of the death penalty.

The Appeals Court noted that the five student plaintiffs did not try to curb the free speech of any of these groups, but were "merely asking that they not be forced to financially subsidize speech with which they disagree." Citing several previous cases, the court recognized that the organizations receiving money from student fees added at best "an incidental benefit to education," and that this benefit "did not usually justify the burden on the dissenting students' constitutional rights." The court further stated that the First Amendment "does not guarantee that the government will subsidize speech," and that the students' right to "freedom of belief" outweighs that of "any governmental interest."

The Southworth case was the second major victory for students who object to their college activity fees being used to finance leftwing and radical causes. The first was Smith v. Regents of the University of California, decided by the California Supreme Court in 1993. The court ruled in Smith that the University of California at Berkeley's use of mandatory student activity fees to subsidize private organizations engaged in political or ideological activities violated the First Amendment. Students in other state universities who would like to mount similar challenges to their schools' mandatory fees policies are invited to contact the Alliance Defense Fund at 7819 E. Greenway Road, Suite 8, Scottsdale, AZ 85260, telephone 1/800-835-5233.

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