The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit brought by five University students challenging mandatory student services fees last week.
The Nov. 9 decision reflected an earlier precedent established last spring by the Supreme Court in a case involving student fees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Seventh Circuit Court ruling in March, holding that Wisconsin’s fees system was constitutional because the fees were distributed on a viewpoint neutral basis.
In both cases, the plaintiffs argued that the universities abridged their First Amendment rights by forcing them to fund student groups with viewpoints they opposed.
After the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, the University of Minnesota plaintiffs — Grant Buse, Matt Curry, Aaron Fagerness, Amber Harpel and Jessie Roos — attempted to alter their case to make it compliant with the new guidelines.
The Circuit Court Judge, however, agreed with the University’s request and dismissed the suit.
The suit specifically named the University Young Women, the Queer Student Cultural Center and La Raza Student Cultural Center as groups students shouldn’t be forced to fund.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg represented the University in court.
“We have felt from the very beginning that the University had a right to require a student fee that would be used to promote diverse political and social dialogue,” he said.
Pat Logue, an attorney for the student groups, called the recent decision a “positive development.”
“This complies with the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s decision,” she said. “It lets people continue to contribute to a diverse marketplace of ideas.”
Jordan Lawrence, attorney for the plaintiffs, agreed the groups should have a voice on campus but called the mandatory fees unfair.
“(The groups) contribute to the give-and-take on campus,” Lawrence said. “But they’re given an unfair advantage because they are so heavily funded.”
The conflict originally arose because the opinions of the student groups in question clashed with the views of the plaintiffs, whose legal battle was funded by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization based in Arizona.
Support for homosexuality and abortion rights made the Queer Student Cultural Center and University-YW targets. La Raza came under fire because of its support for communism and Castro’s Cuba.
“Those are views that have every right to be expressed on campus, but La Raza might be compelled to resist if they were forced to fund a group of Cuban exiles speaking out against Castro,” Lawrence said.
Alison Blomster, Queer Student Cultural Center office coordinator, said she’s not surprised by the recent decision.
“I think it’s the outcome we were expecting,” Blomster said. “There are always going to be people who disagree with one thing or another. I wouldn’t be surprised if (a similar lawsuit) comes up again, but I think the outcome will again be in our favor.”
Not giving up
Wisconsin plaintiffs refuse to give up the fight and have received help from a Seventh Circuit Court judge who agreed to hear their revised case.
Rotenberg said several critical differences exist between the University of Wisconsin’s and the University of Minnesota’s fees systems that would make another lawsuit here more difficult.
“Wisconsin allows students to vote on which groups don’t get funding which makes it easier for people to discriminate against a viewpoint,” Rotenberg said. “Here, student groups justify their funding in a hearing. And, in the hearing, it isn’t relevant what the groups believe.”
The Wisconsin case is again being litigated by Lawrence who, despite the judge’s ruling that his case can be heard, is not optimistic.
“I think he’s agreed to let us have our day in court,” Lawrence said. “But I don’t think it’s certain, or even necessarily likely, that we are going to win.”
Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected]