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Keeping Funding Voluntary

Mike Hall

In a surprisingly unaminous vote, the Supreme Court last week ruled in University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth that the University of Wisconsin at Madison did not violate the First Amendment by forcing its students to fund student groups holding views all across the spectrum. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Court’s opinion that the First Amendment “...permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee ... to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral” -- that is, if everyone receives their fair share as determined by an equalizing of extremism. Under this new precedent, universities can now legally force a Democrat to fund the Young Republicans, a vegan to fund the Future Dairy Farmers of America, and an apathetic student to fund everybody.

The Court has a long and proud history of maintaining viewpoint neutrality in granting access to free speech. In Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union and Widmar v. Vincent, the Court forbade public schools from preventing any group from using school facilities solely on the basis of religion. Widmar went further, stating that a policy excluding groups of any ideology “violates the fundamental principle that a state regulation of speech should be content-neutral.” The Court also correctly prohibited any university that collects activities fees from discriminating in funding groups of any ideology (Rosenberger v. University of Virginia).

With this latest ruling, however, the Court ignores its long-standing tradition of protecting the individual from supporting causes objectionable to him. When providing his money to any group, a student helps it spread its message. While he cannot prevent the group from spreading its viewpoint, he has no obligation to help it out along the way. The Court affirmed this belief in cases such as Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education and Keller v. State Bar of California. In the latter, the Court essentially prevented all public agencies from funding any specific group or ideology outside of the agency’s public obligation.

Like any university charged with providing a liberal education, UW has the obligation to provide a broad in-class education to its students. The university can forcefully expose its students to any ideology while the students are in the classroom. A university also has the right to hire professors and guest speakers with controversial ideas that will challenge and expand the open mind.

Outside class, however, the university cannot mandate that a student be exposed to new ideas. UW itself makes a distinction between curricular and extracurricular life, with its regular tuition fee paid separate of the activities fee. All activities receiving funding are viewed by UW as outside of the curriculum. Therefore, UW does not obligate students to listen to any ideology outside the classroom.

It would be easy to misconstrue the above as permitting all student groups to obtain funding provided students have the maturity to ignore ideas they find offensive. This argument is valid for most free speech cases, in which people claim harm done by an ideology they could have avoided hearing professed. UW cannot prevent any group from speaking just because an individual student claims offense.

At UW, however, a student has an implied involvement with any group receiving part of his money. Once he pays to fund a group, he owns part of it and has a vested interest in its activity. If he deems the group’s conduct as personally offensive, the student then is forced to either ignore something he paid for or absorb offensive thoughts that are not part of the curriculum. This is both abusive and fiscally irresponsible -- two extremes certainly opposed by a liberal educational institution.

A student has the right to remain close-minded and avoid opposing views. He should not forefit that right at the cost of keeping track of his money. If he doesn’t want to sponsor a specific group or any group in general he should not be compelled to do so, even if all groups get fair representation.

This is where the concept of viewpoint neutrality falls under scrutiny. While an honorable goal, viewpoint neutrality reaches its natural end after the university provides each club access to open communication. Any additional funding cannot be given in a practical, equitable manner because available funds cannot meet the demand of every group. Even at private institutions like MIT, difficult choices must be made about which groups receive their funding requests and which do not.

On a philosoplical level, a university cannot fund every student group fairly. The school may claim ideal viewpoint neutrality by funding any group regardless of ideology. The issue here is the method of funding. There are two approaches: the “Senate” distribution, under which all student groups receive equal funding regardless of size and need; and the “House” distribution, under which funds are distributed proportionally based on group members and activity expenses. There is no middle ground here. Granting everyone a “Senate” minimum while providing “House” extras would enrage smaller groups claiming that they can’t get “House”-level members without “House”-level funding. Under either funding scheme, someone gets cheated.

What about selective funding, or funding on a per-group basis by each student’s choice? Rosenberger v. University of Virginia clearly forbids discrimination by any group in allocating university funding. A student could not show preference with his university money, thereby forcing one of the above systems on the student body, thus robbing both the student and the groups of fair treatment in funding.

Now, the big question: How can student groups survive without university funding? To answer this, the university’s obligation to student groups must be carefully defined. A university must provide all student groups with equal access to communication. The club of today, for example should have free Internet access, telephone access, and access to campus media.

Beyond providing access, however, the university has no outstanding obligation to the club. What a club does with its access depends on the conviction and tenacity of its members. Students have a mistaken concept of entitlement when dealing with student group funding.

The Chronicle of Higher Education said in its March 21st edition that had the Supreme Court banned mandatory fees, “organizations on campuses might have been forced to rely on voluntary contributions from students for their financial support.” Why is this viewed as a bad thing? Receiving blanket funding from a school merely keeps substandard clubs with half-hearted supporters alive. If the commitment exists, a club will survive and thrive on its own.

Clubs that operate independent of their home universities, such as the Associated Students of the University of California and the Harvard Crimson, have succeeded because of the tenacity of their members. Local groups acting with scant university support, such as the Boston chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, have survived against incredible odds because their members refuse to surrender. Rather than living on the university dole, these groups prove the advantages of going it alone.

All students have the right to speak, but no student has an obligation to amplify their voices with his personal money