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Supreme Court Upholds Mandatory Student Fees

By Kevin R. Lang

Perhaps East Campus residents can cite Supreme Court precedent when planning next year’s stripper party. In a unanimous ruling last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects student activity funding.

The Court ruled 9-0 that public universities can collect mandatory activity fees regardless of students who object to particular activities. The Court stipulated that the groups given the money must be chosen without regard to their views. As a result, the Court found fault with a minor aspect of the Wisconsin public university system which allows a student referendum to grant or deny funding for student groups.

The New York Times reported last week on the case, which centered around three University of Wisconsin-Madison law students who sued the school’s Board of Regents, claiming that the university used their activities fees to support groups they opposed. Wisconsin charges all students an activity fee to support student groups. However, only a small percentage of the fee was questioned in the suit. Most of the fund, which totals several hundred dollars annually, goes to student medical services, intramural sports, and other uses not questioned in the suit.

About twenty percent of the fee is distributed among some 200 student groups.

The three students represented conservative groups who claimed a constitutional right to keep their money from supporting gay rights, women’s rights, the environment and other causes.

Ruling does not directly affect MIT

While the decision does not directly affect MIT because the Institute is privately funded, the issue of mandatory funding of controversial activities has been raised in recent months.

Most student activities at MIT are directly funded by the Institute, with funds distributed by the Undergraduate Association Finance Board. Finboard currently funds a broad array of student activities, including cultural, religious, and special interest groups.

However, dormitories charge a mandatory house tax for activities and house events. Last November, some residents of East Campus questioned a house-funded party featuring strippers in Talbot Lounge.

Four female strippers were present at the party, and some in attendance were uncomfortable with the intensity of the strippers’ performance. Some of those objecting to the party made an argument similar to that in the Wisconsin case, claiming that their residence fees should not be used to fund activities they oppose.

“It’s partially my money and it bothers me,” said EC resident Mary Ann Rasku ’00. “I don’t think stripping should be outlawed,” Rasku said. “I just think [event sponsors] should go off-campus and use their own money.”

The Times reported that the Supreme Court ruling could serve as a precedent for similar debates over mandatory student fees at private universities.

Katharine Lyall, president of the University of Wisconsin system, called the ruling “a landmark decision for higher education in this century.” In a Times interview, Ms. Lyall said that the decision’s importance lay in its “ringing endorsement of the idea that universities are special places for the free exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial.”

Lower courts forced higher appeal

Two lower-court decisions supported the law students, and appeals brought the case to the Supreme Court. Both courts ruled that the mandatory fees were a form of compelled speech that violated their First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court overturned the appellate ruling. In his opinion, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that while the students did have First Amendment interests at stake, “recognition must be given as well to the important and substantial purposes of the university, which seek to facilitate a wide range of speech.”

“The university may determine that its mission is well served if students have the means to engage in dynamic discussions of philosophical, religious, scientific, social and political subjects in their extracurricular campus life outside the lecture hall. If the university reaches this conclusion, it is entitled to impose a mandatory fee to sustain an open dialogue to these ends.”

Mike Hall contributed to the reporting of this story.