Coercing Funds for Political Activism

Students attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison must pay a student activity fee. A portion of this mandatory fee is distributed to private organizations which engage in political and ideological activities. Plaintiffs, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sued the Regents of the University, under 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming that forcing objecting students to fund such organizations violates their First Amendment rights, as well as other federal and state statutes. The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted plaintiffs summary judgment on their freedom of speech and association claims, dismissed the remaining claims, and entered an injunction which both barred such funding and established a detailed opt-out mechanism. 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 engage in political and ideological activities violates the First Amendment (Southworth v. Grebe, 151 F.3d 717 (7th Cir. 1998).

Issue Areas:

Individual Liberty, Limited Government

Read the Amicus Brief:
Question(s) Presented:

Whether a public university can force objecting students to fund private organizations which engage in political and ideological activities, speech, and advocacy.


ALF’s Amicus Brief:

ALF argues in an amicus brief that the prohibition of the use of mandatory student fee money to fund political and ideological speech and political action by private groups does not impair the educational function of a university. There is no threat to “campus life” because essential activities to the educational experience would be untouched by the elimination of funding of private political and ideological groups. Voluntary contributions would be sufficient to foster diverse political or ideological advocacy. The elimination of forced funding of political and ideological speech does not infringe the speech rights of those groups that heretofore have been funded. There is no constitutional right to have one’s speech subsidized by others. See alsoFederal Election Comm’n v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., 479 U.S. 238, 256 n. 9 (1986) (“[T]here is no right to have speech subsidized by the Government.”).

However, the compelled financing of political and ideological speech of others infringes on the constitutional rights of the objectors, despite there being to vital government interest served by this infringement. Two speech rights of the objectors are violated. First the right not to speak, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943); and second, the right not to be compelled to subsidize others’ speech, Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Educ., 431 U.S. 209 (1977).

Petitioners rely heavily on Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, (1995), however in that case two Justices contemplated just the type of challenge to mandatory fees that this case poses and signaled that the rights of students not to pay for speech they disagree with would be vindicated. In Rosenberger, the administration withheld funding from a student organization whose speech the administration disagreed with. Petitioners either do not understand this distinction, or choose to ignore it. At least they are consistent in advocating for administrations effectively controlling what information students have access to.

Because coercing students to pay for activism they disagree with is not germane to the essential functions of the University, and because political activism is not a vital government interest, ALF asks this Court to grant certiorari and vindicate the rights of students to not be coerced by Universities to support political ideologies.

Status:

On March 22, 2000, the Supreme Court issued an adverse opinion.

Date Originally Posted: August 13, 1999

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