Court Hears Case on Student Activity Fees

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - The United States Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case which could determine whether college and university students can be forced to subsidize the actions of groups they find objectionable through mandatory student activity fees.

The case involves University of Wisconsin at Madison law student Scott Southworth and two fellow students who challenged the school's use of their money collected through a student activity fee and redistributed to various groups whose activities ran contrary to their personal beliefs.

Southworth contends that the $331.50 he and other students pay annually in student activity fees is being used to finance more than the activities typically associated with such charges, such as yearbooks, athletics, recreation programs and guest speakers.

Southworth discovered that his money was being used to fund the lobbying efforts of a Marxist organization as well as lobbying activities by pro-abortion feminist groups.

Among the "student activities" Southworth says he is forced to subsidize are those of the International Socialist Organization and the Militant Student Union, both Marxist groups that advocate the overthrow of the federal government, according to Southworth's attorney Jordan Lorence.

Others include Amnesty International; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center; the Campus Women's Center; and the Students of National Organization for Women.

"We're not asking that groups you object to be censored or silenced," Lorence told from the steps of the Supreme Court.

"We're not asking for groups to be de-funded or to have limitations placed on what they can do with the money. We simply don't want these students to be forced, as a condition for attending the University of Wisconsin, to fund groups they disagree with."

One of Southworth's co-plaintiffs and former law school classmate Keith Bannach wrote several letters to the university seeking a refund of his money on the grounds that he disagreed with some of the ways his money was being spent.

"There was no response. Then I sent the second letter and there was no response to that either," Bannach said.

"We're trying to provide an educational package for students that includes instruction, exposure to a diversity of ideas, an educational environment that's rich in ideas - competing ideas - and this is one funding mechanism for doing that," said University of Wisconsin President Katharine Lyall.

Asked if the students are permitted to opt out of funding activities with which they disagree, Lyall told, "Students do not now have the opportunity to opt out of the activity fee."

Lyall justified the redistribution of collected funds by asserting, "I don't get a chance to not fund parts of the federal government I don't like with my taxes."

Asked if a mandatory could reasonably be defined as "opportunity," Lyall said, "Absolutely. It's an opportunity just as a compelled tuition payment is an opportunity to get a first class instructional program in education. Part of the university's main mission is to provide a diversity of viewpoints on the campus and a pooled fee a way of doing that."

The Court's decision on The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth is due by the completion of its session next June.