Wisconsin students win federal case over fees

MADISON, Wis. (U-wire) — A federal judge on Friday ruled that UW-Madison students do not have to fund organizations they do not support.
In a landmark decision that has shocked and outraged UW authorities and student government leaders, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz said the current system of mandatory segregated fees is unconstitutional.
“I think it’s a victory for the First Amendment and it’s a victory for students regardless of their political or ideological views,” said Scott Southworth, one of the three students who filed the lawsuit. “No students should have to pay for the political or ideological activities of any group on campus, no matter what they believe.”
But top UW officials say the decision will have devastating effects on the diversity of student groups at UW-Madison.
“We have one of the most rich and diverse arrays of student organizations in this country,” said Dean of Students Mary Rouse. “Clearly, this will result in a decrease in the number of student organizations at the UW.”
Southworth and two other UW-Madison law students filed the lawsuit in federal court last spring. They alleged that their First Amendment rights to free speech and association were being violated by the segregated fee policy. They objected to their money being given to groups they do not support, including WisPIRG and the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Campus Center. Southworth said he was a devout Christian who opposes abortion and homosexuality and supports most of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s plans.
“The student government has been violating the First Amendment rights of students for years,” said Jordan Lorence, the Fairfax, Va. attorney who represented the three law students. “It has been a flagrant disregard and I’m not surprised the judge’s decision was so strong.”
Judge Shabaz said in his ruling that he balanced the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs not to subsidize speech that they object to against the UW’s mission to hold a marketplace of ideas.
“This court finds that the balance between the competing interests in this case tips in favor of the First Amendment rights not to be compelled to speak or associate,” Shabaz said.
The decision means that all allocable student fees –those fees that the Associated Students of Madison has primary control over — will be able to be refunded to students.
The refunding method will be devised by a UW official after consulting with the three plaintiffs.
The main thrust of the plaintiffs’ argument was that several student groups used segregated fee money for purposes that the three students didn’t support.
“In this case, in order to attend the UW-Madison law school, the three student-plaintiffs must subsidize groups that contradict their views opposing abortion, homosexuality, socialism, extreme environmentalism, etc. The students must support groups that contradict their views in support of the free enterprise system, Governor Tommy Thompson’s policies, keeping sex within marriage, the death penalty [and] the Bible as a standard of truth. The students must choose between obtaining a University education or refusing to support political and ideological viewpoints they oppose,” the brief states.
UW Political Scientist Donald Downs, an expert in constitutional issues, said Shabaz’s decision was weak and may be overturned in an appeal.
“I think that having to put money into a pool in which all students fund is part of university citizenship. The real problem is where that money is being used,” Downs said. He said the university already has a policy in place that bans segregated fee funding of political groups or events. He said WisPIRG is a clear violation of the policy, and does violate constitutional principles. But he said the funding of other student groups, such as the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Campus Center, does not necessarily violate the Constitution.
“If you want to fund student groups and activities, then inevitably some of that fee is going to go to groups that individuals don’t like. If you take this judge’s decision seriously, you won’t have any more funding of student groups,” Downs said.
Downs said the plaintiff’s argument could be extended to a professor’s speech in classrooms. Students pay tuition, which in turn pays professors’ salaries. If a student objected to a professor’s comments, could he or she request to be reimbursed the portion of the professor’s salary?
“To some extent, your obligation as a university citizen is to fund activities with which you disagree,” he said.
“I think the most disappointing aspect of this decision is the lack of recognition to how important extracurricular activities to students,” State Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, said Sunday night. She also attacked the decision because it undermines the democratic system in place for students to allocate their fees.
“I think that mandatory student fees are very much parallel to our paying of income taxes,” she said. “There are often places where those tax dollars go that we object to. And yet, opting out is not available for tax payers. It urges people to participate in the democracy that allocates it.”