Forced student fees at issue

The last issue The Minnesota Daily printed for the 1979 school year featured front-page photo illustration of a Christ figure on a crucifix with dead students strewn around it on Northrop Mall.
It was intended as a humorous take on the mass-suicide of Jim Jones and his followers in South America — and a critique of religious publications.
Some people on campus weren’t happy about the photo; an uproar ensued, and the Board of Regents yanked the Daily’s student service fees funding for four years because of the issue.
“It’s gutter stuff,” said then-regent Lloyd Peterson of the issue.
The Daily took its case to the courts; four years of legal combat ended with the Daily winning. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the regents could not pull funding based on the content of the paper: a First Amendment violation.
But, as history seems to repeat itself, the case has First Amendment parallels the current lawsuit against the student service fees system.
Five students brought the suit against the University in February, claiming they did not have to fund groups through student service fees that engaged in political or ideological activities.
Conceivably, if the students bringing the suit win, the Daily and other groups receiving the fees could lose their funding.
Two issues reside at the heart of both these cases: The definition of the First Amendment rights of an individual student versus the rights of a student group that receives student funding, and the value of the content of such student groups.
Both of these hinge on the unique surroundings and mission of a university.
“As part of the University’s educational mission,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, “we are dedicated to open expression of views.”
According to this view, the students bringing the fees suit, the students groups receiving the fees and the Daily all have a right to say what they want. But what happens when what is being said is funded by the students?
The Daily won its case when the 8th Circuit decided that revocation of funding is not constitutional when based on content, and said the Board of Regents did just that because they didn’t care for the issue in question.
But, it was precisely because the Board of Regents, a government entity, made the decision to pull funding that the Daily won the case, said Jordan Lorence, attorney for the students bringing the service fees suit.
“Only the government can infringe on someone’s First Amendment rights,” he said. “The Daily won because the government acted and not the students.”
Which is why Lorence said he will win his case; the students claim that their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon because they are forced — essentially by the government — to pay for groups whose ideas they don’t agree with.
Robin Hubbard from the Center for Campus Free Speech is following the fees case, and a similar case in the University of Wisconsin system, closely.
“The most important right is being a part of a campus where every student has a right to be exposed to ideas and get involved,” Hubbard said.
A university’s role is to provide the resources to the students and student groups so they can provide the platform for free speech, she said. If the groups lose the funding, they say their rights to free speech will be quashed.
The University isn’t obligated to fund anyone according to law, Rotenberg said — not a political science department, a student union, or even the student government.
“But those things enhance the educational objectives of the University,” Rotenberg said. “The elimination of the fees will result in fewer opportunities for meaningful student experience.”
Lorence, on the other hand, said the University has plenty of other forums for free speech. Departments for women’s studies and Chicano Studies already get tuition money, so students shouldn’t have to pay an additional fee for the U-YW or La Raza. But while naming the Queer Student Cultural Center in the suit, Lorence said he didn’t know if the University has a gay studies department.
Which is where content — like in the 1979 Daily suit — comes in. Hubbard claims that Lorence and the students he represents are bringing the suit because they disagree with the content of the Queer Student Cultural Center, U-YW and La Raza discussions and activities.
“It’s not about fairness for them,” Hubbard said. “It’s about their larger political agenda.”
Not true, Lorence said.
“While I don’t agree with the groups, we acknowledge that they have First Amendment rights,” he said. If there is a conservative group on campus that gets funding and a liberal group doesn’t like it, he said he would encourage the liberal group to join the suit to eliminate the student’s mandatory payment of the fees.
A bit has changed in the court system since the Daily’s case went through, said Marshall Tanick, the Daily’s attorney in 1979.
“Decisions in the 1970’s and 1980’s favored for people getting funds, but there has been a shift,” Tanick said. Today, courts have been finding for the elimination of funding. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, will be forced to overhaul its student service fees system if the Supreme Court does not reverse a lower court’s decision.