The U.S. Supreme Court last week stepped into a debate that has swirled around many public college campuses: whether students can be forced to pay activity fees when some of the money goes to support groups they find objectionable.
The high court on March 29 accepted an appeal from the University of Wisconsin board of regents regarding lower-court rulings that the university could not require students to subsidize political and social groups with which they disagree.
The issue has not surfaced at the K-12 level, but the high court’s ultimate ruling in the case could have implications for other free-speech issues in public education. The lower courts in the Wisconsin case based their rulings partly on Supreme Court precedents that said teachers could not be forced to subsidize the political activities of teachers’ unions.
The dispute in Board of Regents v. Southworth (Case No. 98-1189) started in 1996, when several politically conservative law students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sued over their mandatory activity fees.
The fees were $166 per semester, of which a relatively small portion went to subsidize student groups as determined by the student government.
The law students objected to the use of their money to support such groups as the International Socialist Organization; the Progressive Student Network; the UW Greens; and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Campus Center, all of which engaged in political and ideological advocacy.
Both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, ruled for the students.
“The students, like the objecting union members in Abood [v. Detroit Board of Education], have a First Amendment interest in not being compelled to contribute to an organization whose expressive activities conflict with one’s freedom of belief,” the appeals court said last year.
Abood was a 1977 case in which the Supreme Court said teachers could not be forced to pay fees that went for a union’s political activities, although they could be required to pay collective bargaining fees.
In its appeal to the high court, the university argued that mandatory student-activity fees enhance free speech by supporting a forum in which groups with diverse views can thrive.
The appeals court “failed to apprehend the critical difference between being forced to support the speech of a particular group and being compelled to provide funding to create a forum for speech by any group,” the university said.
The case will be argued during the court’s next term.
Also last week, the court passed up an opportunity to decide an important issue concerning affirmative action plans in local government.
The justices rejected an appeal by the city of Dallas over an affirmative action plan in its fire department. In striking down a plan that gave preference to some women and minorities in promotion, a federal appeals court ruled there was insufficient evidence of past discrimination in the department. Many school districts have affirmative action plans that give employment preferences to racial minorities.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they would have accepted the city’s appeal in City of Dallas v. Dallas Fire Fighters Association (No. 98-966). Writing for the two, Justice Breyer said the case presented a good opportunity for deciding what evidence courts should consider in weighing whether an affirmative action plan can be justified by past discrimination.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court To Hear Case on Mandatory Student-Activity Fees