U.S. Supreme Court verdict might dictate University suit

by Josh Linehan

With a unanimous 9-0 ruling in favor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its fees collecting process, the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand.
Now, five students with a similar suit pending against the University of Minnesota could find themselves standing on the wrong side of that line.
In February 1998, five University students — Grant Buse, Matt Curry, Aaron Fagerness, Amber Harpel and Jessie Roos — filed suit in federal court.
The group charged the fees process with infringing on their rights of free expression by forcing them to contribute money to groups they find objectionable. Specific groups cited in the suit were University-(Young Women), the Queer Student Cultural Center and La Raza Student Cultural Center.
A similar suit filed against the University of Wisconsin-Madison finally ended when the Supreme Court reversed previous lower-court decisions Wednesday. The ruling means students must continue to pay student services fees, even when money goes to groups they disagree with.
“Nine to zero. It’s harsh. They’re most definitely making a statement.” Curry said “I’m disappointed the Supreme Court ruled in the favor of universities, not students at universities.”
Though the Minnesota complainants viewed the decision as a setback, Curry said they are not giving up hope.
“We’ll have to take some time and look through the decision before we’re sure it applies to our case,” he said. “I’m disappointed, but I won’t rule anything out just yet.”
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, however, said he felt the decision signaled impending victory for the University.
“The cases are sufficiently similar that we will be filing a motion asking the federal court here in Minneapolis to apply the Wisconsin case to our case,” Rotenberg said.
University President Mark Yudof said the court was sending a message.
“If I didn’t think it was sound, it wouldn’t matter anyhow, because it was a 9-0 decision, so I think the Supreme Court has spoken rather authoritatively,” Yudof said.
“Obviously, we want to make sure that our fees system is in conformity with the rules the Supreme Court has set down,” he said.
The conformity Yudof refers to is found in the decision of the court, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
“The First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program, to facilitate extracurricular student speech, if the program is viewpoint-neutral,” Kennedy wrote.
And though both cases are based on complaints about similar student groups, the Minnesota complainants are still waiting for their day in court.
Roos argued the Wisconsin decision did not apply because the groups named in the local suit do not maintain a neutral viewpoint.
“The decision doesn’t lay any new legal ground,” she said.
Both parties in the Wisconsin case stipulated fees were allocated without discrimination.
University professor Daniel Farber, an expert in Supreme Court law, said the Minnesota group would have a higher burden of proof in order to succeed with their case.
“I think they would have to show discrimination within the fees distribution process,” Farber said.
Such a decision would open a can of worms nationwide. Nearly 70 percent of public universities nationwide rely on mandatory student services fees to fund student activities, according to the National Associations for Campus Activities.

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected]