Diversity, free speech challenged in fees suit

Max Rust

The current legal challenge to mandatory student fees marks an intersection of competing interests among students, University administrators and national campaigns. While five students named themselves plaintiffs in the lawsuit, many see their legal challenge to mandatory fees as part of a nation-wide effort to defeat such funding mechanisms.
As a result, this year’s fees process has been subject to heightened political scrutiny. Last week, the Student Services Fees Committee sent its final $15.5 million fees recommendation to University administrators. The plaintiffs allege some fees-receiving groups conduct inappropriate political activism, a charge levied against the suit itself by members of some fees-receiving groups.
The suit was filed last month by Grant Buse, Matt Curry, Aaron Fagerness, Amber Harpel and Jessie Roos. Their complaint alleges that mandatory fees are unconstitutional.
Only three student groups are named in the suit, but any change in their funding status would jeopardize the entire system of mandatory fees. A similar lawsuit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ended mandatory fees there, and many of the players in that case are now backing the Minnesota litigation.
Until the case is decided, members of the University community will be drawn into the national debate over mandatory fees. At stake are fundamental questions of freedom, diversity and student autonomy.
Advocacy or education?

In their lawsuit, the five students allege that the mandatory fees process infringes their rights of free expression and association and wrongfully takes their property.
If the court finds that students’ rights are violated, the University would still have the chance to show a compelling interest to do so. But many members of the University community aren’t ready to concede that anyone’s rights have been denied.
The five plaintiffs describe some fees-receiving student groups as objectionable because they “engage in political and/or ideological advocacy” that “conflicts with the students’ religiously-based advocacy.”
The plaintiffs specifically object to the following quarterly fees: 32 cents to the University YW, 24 cents to the Queer Student Cultural Center and 48 cents to La Raza Student Cultural Center.
In a prepared statement, Curry said the groups “embrace the abortion movement, champion the homosexual lifestyle and support the Communist regime in Cuba,” respectively. But cultural group members say these allegations are false, covering the real reasons for the suit.
By presenting certain viewpoints through speakers and events dealing with communism in Cuba, abortion, and homosexuality, the plaintiffs argue, the listed groups are in essence advocating on behalf of them.
Group members and University officials say the programming is part of the educational atmosphere the University provides, and not part of any political or ideological agenda.
“La Raza is neither in favor or against the communist regime in Cuba. La Raza nevertheless is open to alternative ideas and will explore them, though it never advocates opposing opinions on any ideas,” said Rafael Ortiz, a College of Liberal Arts senior and member of La Raza. Ortiz said the center’s events pertaining to Cuba comprise less than 10 percent of the group’s overall programming.
“I’m all for the marketplace of ideas,” said Roos, another plaintiff. “But to call something a service fee and require me to pay it when I’m paying for things I blatantly disagree with is wrong.”
University officials say Roos is wrong.
University attorney Mark Rotenberg said the administration is still reviewing the lawsuit and has not decided whether to fight it or settle out of court. But he said the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights are not being violated as they allege.
“The University is not above the law,” he said. Past policy has recognized that some groups have opponents, but the fees are meant in part to foster debate about controversial issues, Rotenberg said.
Though the plaintiffs argue mainly on First Amendment grounds, cultural center members and others have called the suit itself an attack on their freedoms and the University’s diversity. Curry and Roos deny such claims. Other plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.
“They’re trying to perpetuate homophobia, racism and sexism,” said Erin Ferguson, a collective member from the University YW. She said if the suit succeeds, “straight white men would rule the campus, and nobody else would have a say.”
Ortiz compared the suit’s claims about La Raza’s political activity with what he said he sees as the plaintiff’s political goals.
“It is part of a national attack that is trying to impose the viewpoints of a specific group that falls on the right side of the political spectrum,” he said.

A national strategy

Though the names on the lawsuit are University students, the litigation is being constructed and carried out by several state and national groups.
“I’m a finance student,” Curry said. “I don’t know anything about suing people.”
But Jordan Lorence does. Lorence, an attorney from Fairfax, Va., is known nationally for representing conservative Christians in the courtroom. He will argue for the plaintiffs.
On the local scene, Lorence has represented members of the Minnesota Family Council, the state’s leading conservative Christian advocacy group. One member is James Lilly.
In 1995, Lilly challenged the city of Minneapolis’ domestic partner ordinance, which granted health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian city employees. Lorence represented Lilly and won the suit.
The Family Council is sponsoring the fees lawsuit.
“We’re interested in rolling back the liberal agenda,” said Kent Kaiser, spokesman for the council. He defined liberal ideas as those which “chip away at the promotion and preservation of traditional Judeo-Christian principals in our society.”
Lorence also represented three Christian students who filed the 1996 Madison lawsuit. Until a federal court hears the school’s appeal, Madison students may opt out of paying fees.
The Madison suit was funded to the tune of $35,000 by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz. The fund is also providing financial backing for the Minnesota students.
Since 1994, the fund has backed 240 suits. The group has financed everything from a lawsuit in Chicago attempting to change laws that grant benefits for homosexual city employees to the crusade of a Memphis lawyer trying to shut down the city’s nine topless clubs.
The fund has recently been targeting public universities.
Alan Sears, the fund’s president and chief attorney, is a former federal prosecutor and director of Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography.
Sears said he’s interested in proving that the University and other schools across the nation are violating the Constitution by forcing students to fund programs they don’t agree with.
“Until the universities across America decide to have a constitutional system, there will be challenges brought by students until such time as this case is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.
The fund has distributed 45,000 brochures called “Defunding the Left Action Paks” to students across the country. The brochures include step-by-step information on how the student can identify “radical” campus organizations, determine if they receive mandatory fees and find out what the groups advocate.
The brochure also lays out a letter-writing strategy for students to follow. If early letters to administrators don’t result in change, students can ask the fund for further information, including legal briefs and resources for filing a lawsuit.
“The student sends the letter. The University writes back and says, `Yes, we will obey the Constitution. We will create an opt-out system, or refund the fee, or end the whole nightmare altogether.’ Or alternately, they say, `Sue me!'” Sears said.
The fund will file suits against six colleges in the next year.
Though Roos received the fund’s brochure, Curry said the fund did not initiate the Minnesota suit. He said he tried unsuccessfully throughout his three years of service on the fees committee to change the fee structure.
Competing ideas

While Roos said the plaintiffs don’t want to shut off the free flow of ideas on campus, many members of the affected groups say the suit threatens to do exactly that.
Matt Strickler, co-chairman of the Queer Student Cultural Center, said a donation system would diminish diversity on campus.
“One of the things I looked at in choosing a college was what kind of resources they had for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” he said. “If I were to have looked at the (University) and seen a campus that was hostile toward queer people, or a campus on which the GLBT group was really struggling to survive because their funding had been cut by something like this, I would have probably attended another university.”
Lorence said that the goal of the lawsuit is not to harm any of the groups, but rather to benefit all students by giving them the choice of speaking for what they want to.
A successful suit would change the fees process altogether, making almost all mandatory fees subject to First Amendment challenge. For example, Ortiz said, Christian Scientists could choose not to fund Boynton Health Service, because their religion eschews most professional medical treatments.
“How many white people would fund La Raza? How many straight people would fund the (Queer Student Cultural Center)? How many men would fund the U-YW?” Ferguson asked.
Ortiz also said students don’t pay their money to individual organizations, but rather to a general fund from which student representatives allocate fees.
Sears said this is a moot point. “The argument these people are making is hey, we’ve got a democratic system with the students. We decide how to spend the money. If you lose, so what, you get screwed. So what, it’s a democracy.'”
Students defend their fees

If University officials decide to fight the lawsuit, a ruling might not be handed down for a year or more. In the meantime, members of fees-receiving groups are acting to defend the status quo.
In Madison, the student government held forums to discuss the implications of the lawsuit and build a dialogue between students and regents.
Though Minnesota Student Association leadership has not yet taken a position on the suit, claiming the issue will “divide the MSA,” other concerned students have been meeting weekly to discuss the lawsuit. Their efforts include a pro-fees rally today in front of Morrill Hall.
Others are taking legal action of their own. Both the Queer Student Cultural Center and the University YW will file motions to become equal parties in the suit. If granted, the groups would have their own attorneys for any trial or settlement in the case.
Rotenberg said this would not affect the University’s decision, and that he has encouraged the groups to make their voices heard.
“The regents have for years approved of the allocations that the committee, which is composed of students, have made, for the very reason that the students should be able to decide within some boundaries where part of their fees go,” he said. “That’s part of the student experience.”
University officials will decide whether to contest the lawsuit within the next 30 days.