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Or coerced support?

THE STUDENTS of the University pay numerous fees to the University. From the Comprehensive Fee to parking fees to the Student Activities Fee, the administration finds numerous ways to extract money from the students.

The most odious is the SAF, which violates students' constitutional liberties and is inefficient to students' wishes. The $39 fee is dispersed annually under the auspices of the Student Council. It often supports groups that espouse political and ideological beliefs. In modern jurisprudence, money long has been equated with speech. Forcing a student to financially support an organization with which he disagrees is coerced speech.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case originating from the University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents v. Southworth. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a mandatory student fee at the University of Wisconsin in a suit raised by five law students. They accused certain groups that received funds of blatant political and ideological activism.

The appellate court ruled that Wisconsin's student fee policy failed a three-prong test set out by the Supreme Court in the 1991 case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. One, the university's support of private political or ideological organizations on campus was not "germane" to the institution's mission of education. Two, there was no "vital policy interest" in the university's compelling objecting students to support such organizations. Three, the use of mandatory fees to finance the groups violated the free speech rights of students who object.

The University of Wisconsin argues that its mission to educate students includes supporting campus organizations that offer a broad array of perspectives and activities. But Jordan Lorence, a lawyer for the appellee, disagrees. "These funds do not create a marketplace of ideas on campus," he said. "It is selective funding to groups that basically reinforce the ruling orthodoxies at a university" ("U.S. Appeals Court Bars U. of Wisconsin from Forcing Students to Finance Political Groups," Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 4, 1998).

Whether or not one would agree that there is a bias in the ideologies of organizations that the SAF supports, it is important to stress that abolishing the SAF in no way restricts the free speech rights of any groups. In its opinion, the court wrote that the plaintiffs "do not ask that we restrict the speech of any student organization."

While there have been some differences in the First Amendment interpretations of circuit courts, most court decisions have been along the lines of the 7th Circuit and many legal scholars feel that the court made a sensible decision. Berkeley constitutional law professor Jesse H. Choper told the Chronicle, "A student at a state university cannot be compelled, by condition of being a student there, to pay student fees that go to support political or ideological beliefs that the student disagrees with."

The handwriting is on the wall. Universities cannot compel students to support organizations with which they disagree. Our own University's SAF also has experienced legal difficulties. In Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that funds from mandatory student activity fees could not be denied to groups based on religion. Although the question of how student fee money was collected was not directly raised in that case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate and swing justice on the high Court, wrote, "I note the possibility that the student fee is susceptible to a Free Speech Clause challenge by an objecting student that she would not be compelled to pay for speech with which she disagrees."

The University does have a refund mechanism, something that was not part of the Wisconsin fee. Currently, students who object can receive a $9.75 refund. But this refund does not go far enough This mechanism is a "band-aid" approach. Money still supports a group to which a student may object and it is difficult to discern what percentage of CIOs engage in ideological activities.

Furthermore, there is an underlying efficiency problem with the SAF. Not only does the SAF force students to support organizations with which they disagree, but it also forces students to support organizations that they don't care about. Collegiate organizations should be held to a free market system. If they cannot support themselves, should they exist? As long as no one is preventing them from existing, I don't see the problem. It would be more efficient for students to support organizations with their own resources. Not only is this efficient, it is fair.

For the most part, CIOs around Grounds do so already. Less than one in two CIOs receive any funding and many get small percentages of their budgets from SAF dollars. As Justice David H. Souter noted in oral agreements, the fact that organizations do support themselves undermines the argument that abolishing the activity fee limits the speech of affected organizations.

The SAF should be abolished. It is unconstitutional and inefficient. Abolishing the SAF would not hurt freedom of speech, but allow a student to use his resources in ways that best conform to his individual conscience. (Justin C. Pfeiffer is a Student Council representative for the College of Arts and Sciences.)




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