Despite faults, student services fees essential

On March 22, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected attempts by three University of Wisconsin law students to abolish mandatory student services fees. In an unusual unanimous ruling, the nine justices stood by the university’s right to enliven debate and viewpoint diversity on campus through student-group funding. Although the court rightfully supported the free exchange of ideas on college campuses, better ways to fund student groups exist than student services fees, which force students to directly support groups with whom they might have deep ideological differences.
The Wisconsin students began the lawsuit against their university’s mandatory fees system in 1996. Two years later, several University of Minnesota students filed a similar lawsuit. The students wished to make the fees optional so they would not have to directly support groups they found objectionable. Both a federal district court and a federal appeals court found in favor of the Wisconsin students, citing precedents from other Supreme Court rulings the prosecution judged to be relevant. The justices disagreed and overturned all of the previous rulings.
However, the court added that constitutionality only applies as long as the program distributing the funds is “viewpoint neutral” in regards to who is given money. Wisconsin’s student services fees program allows students to deny funding by a student referendum. Minority groups with unpopular opinions might then be unfairly snubbed by the majority. The Supreme Court was right to raise concerns over the unfortunate loophole students could use to eliminate groups they dislike. As long as student groups receive funding from the university to promote free thought, popular opinion cannot be used to control whose thoughts are heard the loudest.
Conversely — and on a theoretical level — it is objectionable that a university forces students to directly support ideologies diametrically opposed to their own. A viable solution to this problem is for universities to use general revenue sources from tuition to fund the student groups. While the Student Services Fees Committee could continue to choose what groups deserve funding, students would then support a certain group’s ideology no more than College of Liberal Arts students support Carlson School of Management business fairs.
It is essential for students that universities as institutions of higher learning encourage the exchange of diverse opinions in every possible way. Student services fees — when they are appropriated in a “viewpoint neutral” process — allow all students the opportunity to share ideas and cultures with others. It is only such exposure to different perspectives that results in learning, and often students might initially object to a particular group, only later to be interested in it. Although many student groups could rely more on internal fund raising and promotion — and less on mandatory fees for their budgets — the fees are still necessary for the existence of other groups.