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Law School Case Brief

Bd. of Regents v. Southworth - 529 U.S. 217, 120 S. Ct. 1346 (2000)

Rule:

U.S. Const. amend. I permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint-neutral in the allocation of funding support.

Facts:

The University of Wisconsin, a public university, required full-time students to pay a nonrefundable student activity fee which was segregated from the university's tuition charge. Part of the fee supported extracurricular activities of registered student organizations that engaged in various forms of political or ideological speech. Such organizations were able to apply for a portion of the fee moneys from a student activity fund administered by the student government or a student services fund administered through the student government's finance committee. Alternatively, fee moneys could be allocated to such organizations by means of a student referendum. Some students and former students of the university sought declaratory and injunctive relief by filing suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin against members of the university's board of regents and alleged, among other matters, that the imposition of the fee violated the rights of free speech and free association under the Federal Constitution's First Amendment, and the university had to grant objecting students the choice not to fund those organizations that engaged in political and ideological expression which was offensive to the objectors' personal beliefs. The parties stipulated that the process for reviewing and approving allocations from the student activity fund and the student services fund had been administered in a viewpoint-neutral fashion. The district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, and entered a judgment declaring that the mandatory segregated fee policy violated the First Amendment. In a subsequent proceeding, the district court enjoined the board of regents from using segregated fees to fund any student organization engaging in political or ideological speech. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's determination that forcing objecting students to fund private organizations which engaged in political and ideological activities violated the First Amendment, on the grounds that the university's fee program was not germane to the university's mission, did not further a vital policy of the university, and imposed too much of a burden on the objecting students' free speech rights, but reversed and vacated portions of the district court's declaratory judgment and injunction.

Issue:

Was the university’s student fee program violative of the respondent students’ First Amendment rights?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The U.S. Supreme Court held that U.S. Const. amend. I permitted a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund programs to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program was viewpoint neutral in the allocation of funding support. According to the Court, generally, the viewpoint neutrality requirement of the university's program was sufficient to protect the rights of the objecting students. However, in the case at bar, the Court did not sustain the student referendum mechanism of the university's program, which appeared to permit the exaction of fees in violation of the viewpoint neutrality principle. As to that aspect of the program, the Court remanded for further proceedings since it was unclear what protection, if any, there was for viewpoint neutrality in that part of the process.

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