U.S. Supreme Court ruling relieves fees pressures

V. Paul

The embattled fees process, through which more than $16 million was distributed to student groups this year, is under less pressure to change since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that mandatory fees systems are constitutional.
However, in that same ruling, a fees system does not have to be student-run, and student body referendums deciding whether to fund student groups might be unconstitutional.
University and student leaders evaluating this year’s Student Services Fees Committee and the fees process said the ruling in the University of Wisconsin-Madison case reaffirmed the student services fees process used at the University of Minnesota.
“The committee has a responsibility to respect a neutral viewpoint perspective,” said Jesse Berglund, chairman of the fees committee. “The selection process ensures that, and there are enough safeguards in the system.”
The Wisconsin case ruling laid the guidelines University officials and student leaders can use in reviewing the fees process this year. It ruled a mandatory fees system is constitutional so long as it does not determine student-group funding based on the groups’ viewpoints.
“I think as long as the University stays with the system that is viewpoint-neutral, which it is now, the Supreme Court cannot find any flaw with it,” said Lea Schuster, executive director of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. “We trust that University administration is going to follow what the Supreme Court said today.”
Several complaints regarding the committee’s composition, its alleged political bias and the denial of faculty voting privileges surfaced over the course of the past five months.
However, with the Supreme Court decision, University officials do not expect any major changes to the process, said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel.
The University’s fees system is primarily student-run and, unlike the Wisconsin system, there is no way for the entire student body to vote on which groups should be funded.
Although the general concept of mandatory fees has been settled by the Supreme Court ruling, the issue of referendums deciding fund allocations will still need to be determined in a federal court in Wisconsin.
“There’s a tension between popular democratic procedures and the principles in today’s Supreme Court decisions,” Rotenberg said. Basic democratic mechanisms — such as referendums — are not designed to enforce viewpoint neutrality.
Student leaders of various fees-receiving groups believe the University’s current system does not discriminate against any particular viewpoints — the system’s problems are in its details, such as faculty voting.
“The system as a whole is something everyone can agree on,” said Jason Vorbeck, co-chairman of the Queer Student Cultural Center. “I think this year’s fees process brought some unique bumps in the road that (University officials) are going to want to address regardless of what the Supreme Court said.”
Jane Canney, associate vice president for student development, said it was the University’s intention to review the process in the event that the Supreme Court required it in the lawsuit against the University.
Canney is putting together a task force to evaluate the University’s fees process. The task force, made up of student and administrative representatives from each University campus, will begin its deliberations this spring.
The fees committee will also conduct its own self-evaluation in April.