U responds to lawsuit against student fees

Brian Close

A lawsuit contesting the University’s system of student service fee distribution moved ahead Friday, as the University submitted its formal reply to the suit.
The federal case, brought by five University students, is a challenge to the requirement that students pay fees for certain campus groups. In the reply, the school denies the plaintiffs’ assertion that their constitutional rights have been violated because they are forced to support groups with ideas contrary to their own.
The complaint, originally filed in February, targets three of the more than 20 student groups funded by the quarterly fees. Plaintiffs allege the University Young Women, Queer Student Cultural Center and La Raza Student Cultural Center have “engaged in political and/or ideological advocacy funded fully or in part by the mandatory fee.”
University lawyers contend, however, that the above allegation “is vague and without clear legal or constitutional meaning.”
Jordan Lorence, a graduate of the University’s Law School, represents the students. He said there were no surprises in the University’s reply.
Lorence doesn’t expect the case to go to trial, as it is a legal dispute rather than a factual dispute.
Factual disputes are cases in which the parties disagree on whether certain facts or events are true; legal disputes hinge on the meaning or intent of the law.
Neither side contests the facts of the University’s student fee process, placing the case in the latter category.
“In those kinds of cases, you can basically resolve it without a trial,” Lorence said.
Lorence successfully represented University of Wisconsin students in a similar lawsuit in 1996. That case is in the appeals process.
In the University’s case, Lorence said the three groups were strategically chosen because, while other groups are sometimes political, the two cultural centers and the women’s organization are consistent in their advocacy. In total, students pay $1.04 per quarter to support the three groups.
“I think the constitutional standard is that if a student organization engages in political or ideological advocacy, then students have a right to opt out,” he said.
But Mark Rotenberg, the University’s head attorney, said there is no binding precedent as long as the groups are primarily engaged in on-campus activities.
At the University, only a small percentage of the almost 500 student groups are funded through student service fees.
Lorence said student organizations that are political should fund themselves, as the Progressive Student Organization does.
“The money is targeted at the University to a few groups that receive very large amounts of money,” he said. “They are not handing out $100 grants to the checkers society.”
Rotenberg said the University believes the system provides for a wide variety of activities on campus, but acknowledged there could be other options.
“The student fees committee and the Office of Student Affairs has frequently discussed different structures for the fee system, and we are interested in knowing what the plaintiffs might want in the way of a fee system,” he said.