WASHINGTON – Colleges should be allowed to collect mandatory student fees, even if some students object to the campus groups that their money is being used to support, the University of Wisconsin argued Tuesday before the Supreme Court.
Maryland is one of 15 states to join Wisconsin in the case, which was brought by a group of Madison Law School students who said their First Amendment rights were violated by just such a mandatory fee.
The students complained that the fee was used to support organizations such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Campus Center and the campus chapter of Students of National Organization for Women, groups that they said had a political agenda.
Maryland officials did not participate in Tuesday’s arguments before the high court, but state students and campus officials had plenty to say on the issue.
“Part of America is being able to choose what you get to pay for. I think students have a right to know what their money is going toward,” said Brian Graybou, chairman of the Towson University College Republicans.
Graybou said public universities are wasting students’ money by forcing them to contribute to the various student organizations. Forcing a student to pay activity fees is like “automatic charity,” he said.
“Charity is best when you want to give the money on your own,” said Graybou.
But others said that funding is the only way to ensure that diverse viewpoints are heard on college campuses.
“A lot of groups would not be able to exist,” without school funding, said Jonathan Neumann, vice president of finance for the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland College Park. “There are a lot of groups where we’re the only source of funding for them.”
Some student organizations may not serve everyone individually, but they serve the interest of the student body as a whole, he said.
“It’s beneficial to everyone that these groups are heard,” said Neumann.
Minority perspectives might be lost if only “mainstream ideas get airtime,” said James Osteen, director of Stamp Student Union and campus programs at College Park.
“I think there would be a loss of perspective,” Osteen said.
Officials at the University System of Maryland said fees vary from campus to campus and they could not provide a summary Tuesday of student fees for the 126,000 students across the state. But a sampling of some campuses’ Web sites showed fees ranging from $70 a year for the 5,947 students at Salisbury State University to $110 a year for the 5,418 students at Frostburg State University.
The 40,000-plus Wisconsin students paid $166.75 a semester in 1995-96, the year for which the suit was filed. That translated into less than half a dollar in support by any one student for any one of the controversial groups, according to the university’s brief in the case.
Justices on Tuesday were particularly interested in the exact process by which fees at the University of Wisconsin get to student organizations and in who decides how the money is parceled out. They also asked about the boundaries of “political speech” by the groups that receive funding.
Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Susan Ullman said that overtly partisan groups are denied school funding, since the university “wants to avoid the appearance of political favortism.” She said groups that receive funding are prohibited from lobbying or from supporting political candidates.
But an attorney for the students said they should be allowed to direct the use of their student fees, so their money is not used to support a viewpoint they may find disagreeable. Jordan Lorence said that a few less financial contributions from a few students would not result in the wholesale elimination of groups and differing viewpoints, as some have suggested.
“The wide range of debates won’t diminish by allowing students to drop out,” of paying mandatory fees, said Lorence.