Supreme Court hears arguments for student fees

Raiza Beltran

and Liz Bogut
It took one hour Tuesday for U.S. Supreme Court justices to hear arguments for and against mandatory student services fees — arguments that will shape the future of student groups at all public universities.
The justices directed questions at Jordan Lorence, the attorney representing five University of Wisconsin students, and Susan Ullman, the university’s attorney. The court is expected to issue an opinion in June.
Lorence also represents five Minnesota students suing the University’s Board of Regents. The students allege their First Amendment rights have been denied because they pay mandatory fees to support campus groups like University YW, Queer Student Cultural Center and La Raza Student Cultural Center.
The Supreme Court decision in the Wisconsin case will set the legal standards for the suit against the University, said University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg.
The suit affects all 28 student groups that receive student services fee funding, including The Minnesota Daily.
Scott Southworth, Amy Schoepke and Keith Bannach — all former Wisconsin law students — sued the university’s Board of Regents in 1996. They claimed they are forced to fund liberal student groups they don’t agree with.
Ullman, however, said that altering the student fee system would compromise the university’s free marketplace of ideas, a role she argued is “a legitimate function for any university.”
But Lorence contended that the university contradicts its mission to promote free speech by violating the student’s “right of conscience.”
“Students have a First Amendment right not to speak,” he said. “The university has a constitutional duty to respect the right of conscience of the students.”
Justice David Souter challenged Ullman’s arguments, pointing out that most Wisconsin student groups receive private funds and arguing this undermined Ullman’s point because she claimed a free marketplace cannot be achieved without the student fees.
Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared concerned with the fee system and told Lorence his clients are “asking us to do something that is against the tradition … of many centuries … a tradition of diverse speech.”

University’s fee system
Campus Involvement Center staff members are consulting students and gathering information to prepare for the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We didn’t want to sit back and wait for what will happen,” said June Nobbe, the center’s director. “Every institution is watching this closely. This particular ruling potentially has a great impact depending on the outcome.”
The center — under the umbrella of the Vice President of Student Development and Athletics Office — advises the Student Services Fees Committee that is formed each semester.
Nobbe said any student organization is eligible to apply for funds from the mandatory fees. Every group is required to fill out the same standardized application.
The committee — made up of 13 students, three administrators and three faculty members — then evaluates the requests. Members of the Minnesota Student Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly interview committee candidates.
“We do broad-base (student) recruiting,” Nobbe said, adding that they attempt to recruit objective committee members.
Student organizations are required to present budget proposals to the fees committee. Recommendations from committee members are then announced during open forums.
“Hard decisions are made. The public hearings become lobbying vehicles,” Nobbe said.
After hearing students’ suggestions, the committee turns in final allocations for each student group to the Board of Regents.
“There is a huge amount of student control,” Nobbe said.
Nobbe said her staff is soliciting student input for ideas for a new system.
“Rather than from the administrative perspective, we would like take the students’ viewpoint,” she said.

— The Associated Press and U-Wire contributed to this story.

Raiza Beltran and Liz Bogut welcome comments at [email protected] and [email protected]