After a semester of controversial decisions made by the Student Services Finance Committee concerning funding for student groups, the Supreme Court handed down a decision with direct implications for the University of Wisconsin’s segregated-student-fee-allocation system.
The ruling came in response to allegations made by then-student Scott Southworth that a student’s money should not be given to a group with ideas contrary to the student’s own.
As long as decisions were made in a viewpoint-neutral manner, the ruling decreed, funding decisions remained within constitutional bounds. The Supreme Court ruled that the Associated Students of Madison’s fee-allocation system ensured viewpoint neutrality.
The ruling may only be the beginning of what has so far been a six-year endeavor. Southworth, along with several other students, first filed the lawsuit in 1996 saying the fee system violated their freedom of belief.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory fee systems are constitutional even when student may be forced to fund groups they disagree with on political, ideological, or religious grounds. However, the court said such programs must distribute fees in a viewpoint-neutral manner and sent it back down to the district court to examine Wisconsin’s method.
The same year, the court ruled the system was unable to guarantee viewpoint neutrality and U.S. District Court Judge John C. Shabaz gave UW 60 days to revise its system. After 60 days, the court ruled Wisconsin failed to comply with the law.
Then, in Fry/Southworth vs. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, a federal appeals court ruled on October 1 that UW’s method was constitutional.
“It affirmed what we had been saying for the past six years,” said ASM chair Bryan Gadow. “We went to great pains to create checks and balances in the system.”
Despite criticism from groups denied eligibility for funding, the Southworth case ruling verified that by the standards of the law, the system under which SSFC worked was valid.
The ruling also ensured continued control of student segregated fees by student government.
So what’s next?
Southworth claimed the ruling left the university open to future lawsuits. Simply by protesting that SSFC acted with “unbridled discretion,” a student could become a defendant against the university, he said.
“[The ruling] has given students the absolute right to sue without any hinging on whether they can prove discrimination,” Southworth said in an Oct. 3 interview.
Gadow asserted the soundness of the system would remain upheld in court.
“I don’t think this will stop students from bringing up a lawsuit, but the result will be the same every time,” Gadow said.
According to several ASM members, groups are assured a viewpoint-neutral decision.
“Now if a group feels it’s been discriminated against, it can appeal to the Student Judiciary and be ensured a viewpoint-neutral decision,” ASM member David Presberry said.
While no appeals have been filed, Southworth said he is still considering taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We haven’t decided yet, but we’ll see,” Southworth said. “We may very well decide to appeal.”