Student Groups on the Dole

A few years ago, conservative students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sued the university on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to force them to pay student fees which went to groups who espoused views they disagreed with. Essentially the students argued they were being forced by the state to subsidize certain viewpoints. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the students, ruling that student fees used to fund student groups were within the realm of the educational mission of the university.

At the time it seemed like a slam dunk victory for the student groups on the dole in Wisconsin, but now it appears those groups may yet end up being made losers by the litigation. Specifically the U.S. Supreme Court said that student fee systems such as Wisconsin’s were Constitutional so long as they had a viewpoint-neutral system. Last week a U.S. Circuit Court ruled that, in fact, Wisconsin’s system was not viewpoint neutral and hence unconstitutional.

One of the interesting things about the latest development is that even one of the benefactors of the system admits it is not viewpoint-neutral. Here’s what Heidi Richgruber, the project coordinator for University of Wisconsin student group Sex Out Loud, told the Badger Herald,

I think the decision is significant. It scares me and makes me nervous thinking that the things which keep student organizations going is in jeopardy. However, I do agree that it is a biased system.

One of the amusing things is the number of groups the Badger Herald was able to track down who complain they simply wouldn’t survive without all of the money they confiscate from other students. From a lot of personal experience, groups that would truly fail without such funding are almost always very poorly managed and/or considered irrelevant by the vast majority of students. By crying that they won’t survive, such groups simply beg the question of what role they serve in the first place if there is almost no independent demand for their message.


Court decision worries U. Wisconsin student groups. Jill Bower, The Badger Herald (University of Wisconsin), December 12, 2000.

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