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Paying for Free Speech

The controversy over mandatory student fees heads to the Supreme Court.
2000This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Scott Southworth, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's law school, is suing his alma mater all the way to the Supreme Court. He has most public universities in the country nervous, because the high court may decide that the mandatory-fee system most schools use to fund student groups is illegal.

Southworth and two fellow Christian law students at the University of Wisconsin (UW) decided five years ago that they did not like their fees supporting groups like the International Socialists Organization and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Campus Center.

When the UW administration did not respond to a letter of concern, the trio contacted the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal foundation that supports cases on religious freedom, sanctity of life, and family values.

In 1996 Southworth and his classmates filed their case in federal court. They argued that the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech and free association protect them from subsidizing groups antithetical to Christianity.

"We want to see the university get out of regulating the marketplace of ideas," Southworth says now, after the case has climbed its way to the top of the appellate ladder. "Forced conformity was decried by the Founding Fathers."

The university's case also relies on the First Amendment. "The use of student fees enables the university to create a public forum for student speech," says UW Public Information Director Sharyn Wisniewski. The school believes the funding mechanism helps expose students to a diversity of issues and viewpoints represented by the student organizations.

Fighting For Funds

In 1995-96 UW students paid $331 each for health care and other services, including $26 for student organizations. This year the ...

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