MADISON, Wis. (U-WIRE) — So here we are. After four years of appeals, brief filing, student debates and demonstrations, the day has finally arrived when the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents vs. Southworth student fee lawsuit.
I hope that most people are familiar with the story by now. The University of Wisconsin-Madison law student Scott Southworth and several of his friends sued the university in 1995 because they objected to some groups funded by mandatory student fees. They claimed their First Amendment rights were being violated.
The university and many students have defended the fee system, saying fees don’t fund specific speech but instead create a democratic, diverse forum in which all viewpoints can be expressed. They have maintained that fee funding ultimately enriches campus debate and strengthens the educational mission of the university.
Along the way, we have seen many plot twists. We’ve seen students and regents clash over decisions to appeal the case. We’ve learned of the misinformation about student group activities that is now considered fact because students were never consulted during the initial legal process.
When universities were first started, they were quite different than they are today. Quite simply, Renaissance European students pooled their money and hired professors to teach them.
Now, at least with public universities, the state is supposed to provide this service for students. Unfortunately, amid trends of decreased funding, private investment that supports private agendas, rampant cronyism in the Board of Regents and hostile campus environments for certain groups, students are less and less in control of our education.
Student fees help to fill this void. Especially in Wisconsin, where students’ rights to organize and distribute our money are so strongly protected by state law, student fees provide the only way for us to take an active role in determining the scope of our education during our stay on campus.
The beauty of our system is that it provides so many ways to get involved. Students can run for an ASM council seat, be appointed to a committee, sit on an open committee, speak at open forums for fee grant hearings, apply for funding through an existing student group or find just two other people with similar interests and form a completely new student group.
This system is the backbone of the of learning that takes place outside of the classroom. I won’t hesitate to make the bold statement that my experience with student groups, which in some cases could not have existed without the help of student fees, has been the single most important learning experience in my life to date.
Participating in this democratic “game” our country was founded upon is not always easy. Taking on the responsibility of living in a community requires that we stretch our beliefs and challenge our values, a process which ultimately shapes and reinforces the ways in which we look at life. After all, we came to the university to learn, didn’t we?
This lawsuit is not about protecting individual interests. Our current fee system does just that by making funding available to anyone who applies. Southworth is attempting to silence the voices with which he disagrees. They’re willing to destroy the whole game just to satisfy their particular political interests.
We can only hope the justices recognize that mandatory student fees are absolutely essential to a quality higher education and rule in favor of the university.
Adam A. Klaus’ column originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Wisconsin paper, the Badger Herald.