Justices OK Political Uses of Student Fees


State colleges and universities can force their students to subsidize activist groups on campus, even when these organizations push political causes that offend some students, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a 9-0 decision, the court rejected free-speech claims by young conservatives at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who objected to supporting left-wing groups there.

They relied on the 1st Amendment principle that no one should be forced to endorse ideas or contribute to political causes they oppose.

However, the justices said that the dissident students are not required to endorse any ideas or groups. Instead, they are forced to pay an activity fee that creates a pool of money that in turn supports campus groups.

All student organizations can seek school funding, without regard to their political or ideological views, the justices noted. This system is “viewpoint neutral,” they said, and that is sufficient to protect the rights of all.


Wednesday’s ruling preserves a funding system that has grown at most large universities over the last two decades. Campus groups have flourished with the support of student fees. University officials say that the mix of active organizations enriches life on campus.

Many organizations offer support to groups of students. For example, the Madison campus has a women’s center and a lesbian, gay, and bisexual center with offices in the Student Union.

But other groups are formed around causes such as environmentalism or socialism. They are explicitly ideological and, in some instances, engage in lobbying and political activity.

Across the country, conservative students have complained loudly about these left-leaning activist groups. They have charged that the vast majority of student funds goes to groups that espouse liberal views.

In 1996, when the University of Wisconsin was sued for its funding policy, the student activity fee was $331. Wisconsin PIRG, a liberal public interest group, received $50,000 in student funding that year. The conservative Federalist Society received a $300 grant to defray travel costs for speakers.

University officials said that this imbalance--if it is one--reflects the views and interests of the students. They form the groups. They are free to seek the subsidies. And a student board--Associated Students of Madison--allocates the funds.

The court did not examine how the funding system worked at Madison, accepting that funding decisions were made without regard to political views.

In the lower courts, conservative advocates had won cases concerning involuntary funding of groups or activities.

In 1993, the California Supreme Court ruled that dissident students were entitled to seek refunds for the part of their fees that subsidized political groups. However, the amount of any refund is typically small.

Earlier, the high court had ruled that dissident schoolteachers could not be forced to pay union dues that in turn are used for political activity. In 1990, the justices said the same about dissident lawyers in California who objected to paying for lobbying by the state bar.

Relying on those precedents, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago sided with the three conservative law students who sued the University of Wisconsin.

But the justices reversed the ruling (Board of Regents vs. Southworth, 98-1189).

“The 1st Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court.

Unlike a labor union, where the members’ dues support a single viewpoint, a student’s fees support a variety of views, Kennedy explained.

Jordan Lorence, a Fairfax, Va., lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said he was surprised and disappointed by the outcome.

The funding system “is not about promoting diversity,” he said. “It actually reinforces the majority point of view on campus.”

Gay and lesbian students say they were the targets of the conservative legal attacks.

“This was part of a well-funded, aggressive campaign to ‘defund the left,’ ” said Matt Coles, director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “These [conservative] students were not being compelled to support any particular viewpoint. They were supporting a forum for students that is open to all.”

Wednesday’s decision marks the second time this year that the conservative-leaning Supreme Court has rejected a free-speech claim brought by conservatives.

In January, the justices upheld official contribution limits for political candidates, rejecting a free-speech claim championed by the Republican National Committee. The decision revived a $1,000 state limit for candidates in Missouri; the six-vote majority included Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In both cases, Rehnquist and O’Connor sided with the states--as they usually do--rather than take up the free-speech claim brought by conservatives.