Oral arguments in the ongoing Southworth v. UW Board of Regents case will be laid out in front of a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago today, marking the latest step in the battle over the constitutionality of UW-Madison’s mandatory student fees.
In the case, three former UW students ?- Kendra Fry, Benjamin Thompson and Scott Southworth – contend segregated fees are not viewpoint-neutral, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they must be last year.
The UW Board of Regents, as a state agency, will be represented by Wisconsin state Department of Justice Attorney Peter Anderson.
No decision will be made in today’s hearing.
UW lawyers will be appealing U.S. District Court Judge John C. Shabaz’s ruling that the current fee system is not constitutional.
“Differentials in funding amounts have no objective root but reflect only the discretionary judgement of the student government,” Shabaz ruled in March.
UW System spokesman Erik Christianson said Anderson will contend the current system follows the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We believe the system does ensure viewpoint-neutrality,” Christianson said. “Not only is it viewpoint-neutral, but it’s constitutional as well.”
Segregated fees are the portion of mandatory fees students pay in addition to their tuition to support student organizations and services. At UW-Madison, these fees are distributed by the Student Services Finance Committee, a branch of the Associated Students of Madison.
In the original Southworth case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the UW distribution system was constitutional so long as the fees were distributed in a viewpoint-neutral manner.
Last December, the U.S. District Court ordered ASM to amend its bylaws to better ensure viewpoint-neutrality in the segregated-fee distribution process. In response, ASM adopted a two-part distribution structure, separating the actual budget decision and the groups’ eligibility. ASM also said it would tape future budget meetings.
Nevertheless, Shabazz ruled the amended system failed to guarantee viewpoint-neutrality and therefore violated the First Amendment.
“The complications in this case relate to the [UW’s] pursuit not only of its commitment to fund diverse students’ speech but its competing commitment to empower student government to be the arbiter of that funding,” Shabaz wrote.
But UW officials appealed, saying the system has been, and still is, constitutional.
“The [U.S.] Supreme Court unanimously agreed to that a few years ago,” Christianson said. “With the changes that have been put in place – we firmly believe our system is constitutional, and we’re optimistic that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is going to agree.”
The appellate court will hear oral arguments today and make their decision at a later, undetermined date.
After their decision, the process will again be open for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by both parties.