Say What You Like, But I Don't Want to Pay for It

  • Share
  • Read Later
Should colleges require members of the Young Christians Student Association to watch their scarce dollars fund the Gay and Lesbian Alliance? On the other hand, do atheist students have to watch their ducats doled out to evangelical groups? These were questions before the United States Supreme Court Tuesday as it heard arguments as to whether public colleges can enforce mandatory student "activities fees" that fund student groups. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, filed by a former law student who protested the $165-per-semester fee, touches off a murky area of First Amendment debate: Is free speech better served by having colleges pool funds into forums for public discussion or by having individual students decide what groups, if any, to contribute to? While the filers of the suit contend that their speech is coerced by paying a mandatory fee, the university counters that if the fee isn't charged, many students will just keep the money and diversity of free speech will ultimately suffer.

Opponents of the fee claim that precedence is on their side in the form of a court ruling earlier this year that labor unions cannot levy member charges to fund political activities. But TIME legal analyst Adam Cohen, who believes the court will side with the university, sees an incongruity between the two cases. "With labor unions you can draw a very bright line between what a labor union does in representing people and its political activities, and place those two functions in distinct divisions," says Cohen. "With student governments you can't draw such a clear line. Part of their primary agenda is to encourage student groups to form and congregate." Cohen likens the filers of the suit to taxpayers bitter over how the government spends their money. But he says, student government, like the federal government, is democratically elected to spend money in a way that's in the best public interest.