High court rules student fees don't violate free speech rights

9-0 vote lets colleges keep systems to fund campus organizations

March 23, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that state colleges and universities may assess all students an activity fee to support campus organizations -- even if some students are opposed to the ideas, politics or actions of particular groups.

If a university sets up a system to encourage students to take part in extracurricular campus life, "it is entitled to impose a mandatory fee" to pay for the system, the court said.

The ruling means, for example, that students who favor the death penalty may not withhold fees that would go to an anti-capital punishment group such as Amnesty International on campus if the university does not show favoritism toward one side or the other in that debate.

The court ruled five years ago that if a university subsidizes an open dialogue or open forum, all student groups must be allowed to apply for support. Yesterday, for the first time, the court decided that all students may be assessed a fee to finance such a mechanism.

The court conceded that "it is all but inevitable that the fees will result in subsidies to speech which some students find objectionable and offensive to their personal beliefs."

But as long as the fee money is allocated in a neutral way and not to promote specific points of view, the objecting students' constitutional rights are not violated, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in the court's main opinion.

The university, Kennedy said, "may not prefer some viewpoints over others."

Among Maryland public colleges, the University of Maryland, College Park and Towson University have similar fee systems for supporting extracurricular group activity.

At College Park, a per-student fee of $53 for full-time students and $28 for those attending part time finances more than 100 activities, according to spokeswoman Cassandra Robinson. The fee at Towson is $50. At both institutions, the activities subsidy program is run mainly by the student government.

Yesterday's decision, in a case involving a fee challenge by conservative Christian students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was supported in its main conclusion by all nine justices, but all did not share the same reasoning.

The decision "is not liberal vs. conservative," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal advocacy group that supported the university in the case. "What the court is saying is that all deserve to be heard in this academic environment. This is a great victory for the First Amendment."

Conservative groups objected to the ruling. "The court accorded little value to a student's right not to be compelled to speak," said Matthew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, a conservative advocacy group. "This decision takes away the rights of objectors."

The ruling involves only public colleges and universities, not private institutions, as the Constitution puts limits only on the government and the First Amendment applies only when government actions impinge on free speech rights.

Six of the nine justices said students who object to use of their fees have some right under the First Amendment not to be coerced by a public institution into subsidizing viewpoints they don't share. The three other justices saw those rights as narrower.

All nine agreed that keeping the student group subsidy program neutral on the viewpoints that get financial support is enough to outweigh objecting students' rights in the setting of a college or university.

The court indicated that a state college or university is free to set up a system to let students list the causes they do not want to support, but the institution has no binding duty to do so.

Such a checkoff system, the court added, might be "so disruptive and expensive" that it would undermine the entire program of supporting student groups. The First Amendment rights of the dissenting students do not require the university "to put the program at risk."

The court also said it was not requiring colleges and universities to limit what campus groups could do with fee subsidies in off-campus activities. In a world of expanding boundaries of communications, the court said, it would not restrict subsidized groups to campus activities alone.

One part of the Wisconsin program that the court did not uphold yesterday permits students to vote in a campus-wide referendum on whether to direct funds to a particular group or veto a group's subsidy.

The court said it had doubts about the constitutionality of that approach, because it could undermine neutrality, but left it to a lower court to examine that aspect anew.

Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

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