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Supreme Court to Make Ruling On University ‘Fee Speech’ Case

By David G. Savage

College campuses are a haven for free speech, and nowhere more so than at the University of Wisconsin.

Students can join myriad groups, and the traditionally liberal campus even has two independent student newspapers, including one with a conservative bent.

While many revel in this marketplace of ideas, some young conservatives say that campus activism is less a tribute to free speech than to a bureaucratic system of “fee speech.” Many of the activist groups on campus are funded largely by mandatory student fees.

Now the future of the fee-speech system -- a feature of most university campuses today -- is in doubt, thanks to a free-speech challenge coming before the Supreme Court this month.

Scott Southworth, a UW law student who believes that students should have the right to “opt out” of funding groups and causes they oppose, argues that mandatory fees are unconstitutional.

He predicts the Supreme Court will agree and force student groups nationwide to use voluntary support.

At UW, about two-thirds of the annual fees -- assessed at $331 per student in 1995, when Southworth first challenged them -- go to the health clinic and the student union. The balance goes to more than 100 campus groups, with some getting a few hundred dollars for a speaker or a newsletter and others receiving more than $30,000 a year to pay for offices and staff.

Among the groups receiving university funds are the Internationalist Socialist Organization, the Militant Student Union, the Progressive Student Network, the UW Greens and the Ten Percent Society, the more militant of two gay-rights groups.

“As a conservative Christian, I don’t think I should have to fund these violently partisan, anti-Christian hate groups,” Southworth said. He described the university’s response as: “Either pay for these groups or we will kick you out.”

The University of Wisconsin defended the subsidies for student groups and says that the array of advocates enriches campus life.

“The groups ... make the campus interesting,” said Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Susan Ullman.