Appeals court

Jim Martyka

In a case similar to the University’s student services fees lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled Monday that students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison cannot be forced to fund campus groups that engage in political and ideological activities.
Though the University of Minnesota’s case falls under the Eighth Circuit and a different set of judges, plaintiff and defense lawyers say they have closely followed the Wisconsin case, which could impact the University.
“Even though these judges’ opinions are not controlling for the University’s case, judges do listen to what other judges say and this could very well influence the outcome of our case,” said Mark Rotenberg, head of the University’s Office of the General Counsel.
“This is better than what we expected. It’s a very clear win and I think it will have a huge impact on the Minnesota case,” said Jordan Lorence, a University Law School alumus and legal counsel for the students in both the Minnesota and Wisconsin cases.
In April 1996, three Madison students sued their university, challenging the mandatory fee system. They won the case, which was later appealed.
The three-judge panel used the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1991 ruling in “Lehnert vs. Ferris Faculty Association” in making its recent decision.
In the decision, the court said funding groups that engage in political and ideological activities was not relevant to the school’s educational mission, refuting the school’s main defense. Also, there was no “vital policy interest in compelled funding.” The court also said the use of these mandatory fees violated free-speech rights. The recent decision will affect campuses in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
University of Wisconsin legal officials said they didn’t expect the appeals court to uphold the state court’s ruling.
“We argued that the (state) court had erred in its initial decision and we hoped that we would prevail,” said Pat Brady, senior counsel for the University of Wisconsin system.
Brady said the school’s legal team will now review the court’s decision before making its next move. The school can either ask for an en banc review by all 11 Seventh Circuit Court judges or appeal the decision to the U.S Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, plaintiffs in the Minnesota case viewed the decision as a major victory.
“It helps reinforce that this is a free speech case, and it gives us more hope,” said College of Liberal Arts junior Jessie Roos.
Roos, along with four other University students, filed a complaint in February challenging the University’s system of requiring students to pay fees supporting certain campus groups. The complaint specifically targets three of the more than 20 student groups funded by the quarterly fees system.
In April, the University replied to the complaint, stating the fees system did not violate the students’ rights.
The case is currently at a standstill because the three groups being targeted are appealing a decision preventing them from joining the case as a third party.
While Rotenberg says the University will maintain its position, plaintiff lawyers say the recent Wisconsin decision might help them in reshaping the student service fees structure.
“There should be a system where students have more say in dispersing their money,” Lorence said. “With this decision, I think the University’s Board of Regents might start hearing the footsteps and take the time to rethink the policy.”