MADISON — University of Wisconsin leaders said they were pleased with Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision that public colleges and universities can use money from student fees to finance the campus groups of their choosing.
“I am tremendously gratified that the Supreme Court has upheld the right of students to allocate their fee money democratically,” said Katharine Lyall, president of the University of Wisconsin System.
“This is not only a vote in favor of freedom of expression on our college campuses, but also a vote that speaks to the very heart of a university. It confirms that a core part of the university’s mission is to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas.” said Lyall.
“On behalf of the Board of Regents, I am pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of free speech in a great public university. It is, of course, at the heart of the institution,” said Board of Regents President San W. Orr.
“We hope students will think carefully about the decisions they make in funding student organizations,” said Orr.
UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward said he is pleased with the court’s decision. “I am gratified that the justices have affirmed UW-Madison’s commitment to the First Amendment and the way in which we seek to foster a rich dialogue on campus,” he said.
Scott Southworth, Amy Schoepke and Keith Bannach, former UW law students, brought the original suit against the university in 1996, arguing that a mandatory segregated fee system forced them to support political and ideological organizations with which they disagreed, thus violating their First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association. The students named 18 campus-related organizations to which they objected on political, ideological or religious grounds.
A federal judge and a federal appeals court ruled against the university, but the State Attorney General’s Office appealed those rulings to the U. S. Supreme Court which, on Wednesday, March 22, overturned the lower court rulings.
The Supreme Court did not, however, sustain the use of a student referendum mechanism to allocate funds. That aspect of the case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
“This decision has broad implications for public universities throughout the nation,” added Lyall. “We are pleased that Wisconsin could be the national testing ground for this important issue.”
Roger Howard, interim associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UW-Madison and the campus’ main spokesperson on the case, said, “I am very pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the importance the university places on supporting a broad forum for diverse speech. The student allocation of activity fees creates a rich array of programs on many different topics. The court’s decision permits us to continue this valuable effort.”
Sharyn Wisniewski, UW System
Erik Christianson, UW-Madison