Students hail court decision on UW fees

MADISON – Student leaders celebrated an Oct. 2 U.S. Court of Appeals decision that student fee policies here at the University of Wisconsin do not violate the Constitution. Members of the Associated Students of Madison called the victory a conclusive end to a long-running saga over the legality of its own fee system and heralded its implications for a multi-billion dollar array of programs on public university campuses across the country.

The Fry v. Regents of the University of Wisconsin System decision is the latest in a series of rulings which began in 1996 and have reached as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. The case began when three conservative University of Wisconsin students sued the school, arguing it violated their rights because a portion of their student fees were used to support messages with which they disagreed on political and religious grounds. They specifically cited their opposition to the messages of socialist, feminist, environmentalist and pro-gay student organizations. Their arguments resembled similar attacks on organized labor’s ability to expend union dues for political action. Though the suit claimed extremely little in money damages, a successful challenge would have forced universities to change or abandon their fee systems.

In the ensuing six years, the courts had decided that just as unions may expend money on political activities germane to their collective bargaining function, students may collectively fund speakers, organizers and events as part of their role in supplementing their formal education. However, activities must be guided by neutral criteria and not simply favor one point of view.

The ruling has affirmed the student power on campus and the ability of students to be in control of our fees,” said Bryan Gadow, chair of the Associated Students of Madison. “The court has affirmed that the system we have set up is both constitutional and effective.”

The decision arrived, coincidently, at the same time the student government’s judiciary is hearing several cases involving alleged infractions of rules designed to keep funding decisions neutral with regard to viewpoint. The cases involve the conservative-majority student funding committee, which has come under fire for eliminating funding for MEChA, the UW Greens Info Shop and the Student Labor Center. Shortly before the Seventh Circuit decision, the student judiciary panel awarded MEChA a new hearing and removed one member of the funding committee for misconduct.

Gadow said those events were proof that the student-controlled process works. “It’s self-correcting. There are just too many steps that prevent students from making funding decisions based on viewpoint.”

The author can be reached at g.grass@justice.com