Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 41: High Court to Decide if Mandatory Student Fees Violate Free Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard both sides of an argument about the constitutionality of using student fees to fund political organizations at the University of Wisconsin. The court is expected to announce a verdict in June.

The case began in 1996, when former University of Wisconsin student Scott Southworth filed a lawsuit claiming that the use of mandatory student activity fees to fund campus political organizations violated students’ First Amendment rights by forcing students to give money to groups that they did not support. A federal trial judge and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Southworth’s favor. UW appealed the decision, saying that mandatory student fees gave students a forum in which to discuss issues that might not exist without their collection. Their claim, in essence, was that mandatory fees contributed to more free speech.

“Taking away some of these forums because of lack of funds would be the true violations of First Amendment rights,” said University of Wisconsin spokesman Erik Christianson.

Abi Sommer, speaker pro tempore for UNC Student Congress, told The Daily Tar Heel that a ruling in Southworth’s favor might stifle free speech at Chapel Hill.

“Allowing students to choose where their fees go would kill 90 percent of the student organizations on campus. It wouldn’t be fair at all,” Sommer said.

About 70 percent of the United State’s public colleges finance groups through mandatory fees, according to the National Association for Campus Activities. Most of the current fee systems began during the Vietnam War era, when students believed that taking responsibility for financing certain political groups was a way to advance social and political agendas.

But according to a new report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, campus groups of all kinds existed before mandatory collection. Even today, about 140 of UW’s 620 organizations operate without money collected from student fees. Even so, the University plans to charge each student $445 in mandatory fees for the 1999-2000 school year. About $1.3 million of the collected total will go to fund campus groups. The plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case claim that many of those groups are involved in “objectionable advocacy.” The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Campus Center, for example, receives $30,888. The UW Greens receives $18,301. And the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (Pirg), an advocate for environmentalism, receives $72,000.

At many N.C. public universities, student fees rival the cost of tuition. In 1996, a peak time of controversy over mandatory fees, East Carolina University students paid $4 more in student fees than they did in tuition. At Elizabeth City State University, the amount was $8 more. And at UNC-Asheville, student fees were $263 more than annual tuition.

In November, North Carolina Central University considered raising student fees by 12 percent. If approved, students would pay a total of $947 next year. In October, N.C. State University approved fee increases totaling $60 for undergraduate students and $65 for graduate students.

In Other News: Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has announced a plan to ensure state school acceptance for the top fifth of each graduating high school class. He has also moved to stop minority set-asides in state contracts. At the University of Florida, the student population is 9.2 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black. Florida is 13.6 percent Hispanic and 13.4 percent black, according to the school’s provost. If Bush’s plan is accepted, it could derail a statewide vote to end all affirmative action. California has a programs that guarantees placement in state colleges to the top 4 percent at each high school. Texas guarantees spots to the top 10 percent of each class.