A lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court last week will determine whether mandatory fees — such as those billed to students every semester at the University — and the student groups they support, will continue to exist.
The Supreme Court’s decision will no doubt set a precedent for all lawsuits against student services fees.
The lawsuit is part of an effort to remove funding from certain types of student organizations. At stake is the future of student services.
Scott Southworth, a conservative Christian student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, brought forth the lawsuit in 1995 to remove student services fees.
Southworth’s lawyer, Jordan Lorence, a former University of Minnesota student, argues that forcing students to pay for services that espouse ideas they don’t agree with violates students’ First Amendment rights.
Southworth doesn’t agree with ideas presented by several student groups including the Campus Women’s Center, Madison AIDS Support and Amnesty International.
Lorence has also filed a similar suit on behalf of five University of Minnesota students targeting La Raza Student Cultural Center, University Young Women and the Queer Student Cultural Center. The Minnesota case awaits the Southworth ruling before moving forward.
Officials at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin argue that the fees are part of an extended student curriculum, or “marketplace of ideas.”
Student groups argue that the fees are, in fact, not “forced” upon students, but rather decided by student committees through a democratic process where students must vote on what gets funded and how much.
Southworth’s case won in the U.S. 7th Circuit District Court but was appealed by the University of Wisconsin.
A similar 1996 lawsuit against the University of Oregon failed.
The following are the most contested University of Minnesota campus groups and the services they offer. They would be the first affected if the court rules that student fees should become either optional or that schools have no right to collect student fees, optional or not.
ù Hispanic students looking for an organization familiar with their cultures can go to La Raza Student Cultural Center to help them get acquainted with the Twin Cities.
ù The University Young Women group supplies information to female students regarding information and counseling on abortion, birth control and pregnancy.
ù A gay student looking for a safe, comfortable place on campus, or just a place to hang out between classes, can walk into The Queer Student Cultural Center.
ù Students can look to the Africana Student Cultural Center to find information on African cultures without having to take a class.
Neither the Southworth case nor the University of Minnesota case represent a bunch of students simply complaining about having to pay money in addition to tuition every semester.
The cases are part of a legal strategy financed by the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that funds a variety of lawsuits brought forth by conservative Christians.
Included in the list of clients are a Chicago man attempting to change laws that grant benefits for homosexual city employees and a Memphis lawyer crusading to shut down the city’s topless bars.
The group has sent out 45,000 brochures, titled “Defunding the Left Action Paks,” to college students nationwide. The pamphlets provide step-by-step information on how to identify “radical” student groups and eventually file a lawsuit against their school’s fee system.
The Fund is financing the Southworth and Minnesota cases and a case at Miami University in Ohio. The Fund has also helped students at the University of Maine in having some of their fees money returned.
Scott Phillips, deputy chief counsel for the Fund, said if the Southworth case is rejected by the court that the group will re-examine the other fees cases and determine whether to continue to pursue a win on behalf of their clients.
But for now, all either party can do is wait for the ruling.
Associated Students of Madison chairman Adam Klaus said his organization — which represents the undergraduate student body at the University — has been actively creating awareness about the lawsuit since it was filed and has garnered support from other students to support the University in reversing the 7th Circuit Court’s ruling.
“The whole culture of actively learning and engaging in the process outside of the classroom and engaging in student organizations and taking an active role in education could be sorely damaged if this case is upheld,” Klaus said.
Max Rust reports on the University community. He can be reached at [email protected]