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Court OKs Mandatory School Fees

Public colleges and universities can use money from mandatory student activities fees to finance campus groups that engage in political speech some students find objectionable, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court voted unanimously to uphold the University of Wisconsin's student-fee system, which the justices said does not violate any student's free-speech rights.

Had the justices ruled the other way, public colleges and universities across America would have had to stop giving money to controversial student groups or figure out some way to give partial refunds to those students who wanted them.

“The First Amendment 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,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.

He added: “When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.”

CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen reports the interesting part of the ruling is that six justices thought that public universities can impose the fee only if they allow all funding of all student viewpoints while three justices weren't willing to go that far. That means we just might see this fight percolate up again in the next few years.

“I agree that the university's scheme is permissible but do not believe the court should take the occasion to impose a cast-iron viewpoint neutrality requirement to uphold it,” Justice David H. Souter wrote in an opinion joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer.

In many ways this case was counter-intuitive. Some students sued under the first amendment because they didn't want their fees going to groups with which they didn't agree. They argued, in effect, that they had a right not-to-speak, not-to-pay, under the Constitution. That's certainly a valid argument but it cuts against the grain of what higher public education usually is about-- learning about and dealing with people with different views.

When Wisconsin's student-fees system was challenged in 1996, about $15 of the $166.75 students paid in fees each semester was earmarked for distribution to campus groups by the student government. For a school with some 38,000 students, that created a total fund each semester of about $570,000.

Several law students with conservative political views objected to having some of their money funneled to liberal organizations. Their lawsuit identified as objectionable 18 of the 125 subsidized campus groups, including the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center and International Socialist Organization.

Scott Southworth, the lead plaintiff and now an attorney, said in a recent interview, “As a conservative and a Christian, it was frustrating to sethe money going to organizations I personally disagree with.”

A federal judge and a federal appeals court ruled against the university, but the nation's highest court said they were wrong.

The ruling will not affect private schools because the Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, protects people against government actions only.

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