A federal court has ruled the University of Wisconsin’s method for distributing mandatory student fees to campus organizations is constitutional, and some are calling the ruling a “Trojan-horse victory” for UW.
In 1996, several UW students filed a lawsuit stating the mandatory student-activity fee system violates students’ First Amendment rights for freedom of belief.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that mandatory fee systems are constitutional even when students may be forced to fund groups they disagree with on political, ideological or religious grounds.
However, the court said such programs must distribute the fees in a viewpoint-neutral manner.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court to examine Wisconsin’s distribution method. Later that year, a district court judge ruled the system’s guidelines were unable to guarantee that decisions on funding were viewpoint-neutral, as required by the first ruling.
U.S. District Court Judge John C. Shabaz gave UW 60 days to revise its system to comply with the law, or the system would be dismantled.
After 60 days, Shabaz said UW had failed to comply with the law. The University of Wisconsin appealed the decision to a Federal Court of Appeals.
In Fry/Southworth vs. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday the method the UW System uses to distribute mandatory student fees to campus organizations is constitutional.
“It was a partial win for us and a partial loss for UW. It was a partial loss and a partial win. It’s like a draw,” said Scott Southworth, former UW law student who originally brought the lawsuit in 1996. “It’s intellectually dishonest if UW claims they got a big victory here.”
The center of both cases center around segregated fees. These fees are mandatory fees students pay in addition to their tuition to support student organizations and services. At UW, these fees are then distributed by the Student Services Finance Committee (SSFC).
Southworth called the ruling a “Trojan-horse victory” for the University of Wisconsin System. He said the ruling opens up the possibility for students at UW or any other college to sue the university on how they fund student groups.
“From a national standpoint, what the 7th Circuit (Court) has done is told every student at every public university in the country that unbridled discretion can now be used as a legal argument,” Southworth said. “That is a huge legal victory for us in the whole scheme of things. I’m disappointed that the court didn’t go with us and say that the system has unbridled discretion within it.”
Unbridled discretion states organizations like the SSFC “can fund what they want, when they want, and how much they want.” Unbridled discretion operates in the absence of viewpoint-neutrality.
“It’s like we have a nuclear bomb with unbridled discretion. It would have been a simple way of eliminating the whole system,” Southworth said. “What the court did was say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to give you a nuclear bomb, but here’s 10,000 grenades — start lobbing them.’ If I was the university attorney, I’d be shaking in my boots because they’ve given students the absolute right to sue without any hinging on whether they can prove discrimination. UW has got to be devastated by this, because after oral arguments, everybody — including me — expected that this would come down against us, and this decision clearly is not a bad decision for us. It’s just opening up a Pandora’s box now. Lawsuits will be modus operandi at the university for years to come.”
Seg-fee system ruled viewpoint-neutralDavid Olien, senior vice president for the University of Wisconsin System, said he did not want to make any reactionary statements on the ruling but said the UW System is compiling an extensive opinion on the ruling due out tomorrow.
Attorneys representing the students who sued the university said they interpreted the decision as opening the possibility for all UW students to ask for refunds on a portion of their mandatory fees that were dispersed under the improper system.
In 2001, $32.64 of each UW-Madison student’s tuition was allocated to the General Student Services Fund, which has its budget decided annually by SSFC.
The case also sets a precedent for other colleges around the country. Any university system with mandatory fees like those at UW may fall subject to similar lawsuits. It is this very reason why Southworth said he believes UW will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I definitely think UW would have to be thinking appeal, and if not, I’d be shocked,” Southworth said. “I think they will get a lot of pressure from outside the university from places like Minnesota, Illinois and other states calling up and saying, ‘You need to appeal this because you are setting us up for a big fall here.'”