University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000)

2012-09-21 15:24:31

In University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, provided they allocate funds in a viewpoint-neutral manner, public universities may use mandatory student fees to support expressive activities to which some fee payers object. The case arose when several students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison objected to the use of a portion of their fees to assist student organizations with whom they ideologically disagreed. The funds were distributed at the discretion of student government and occasionally by student referendum. Previously, the Supreme Court had found mandatory union and bar association dues to violate dues payers’ First Amendment rights when used for expressive purposes not germane to issues of collective bargaining or regulation of the legal profession (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, Keller v. State Bar of California). Relying on such precedent, the students won in the district court and court of appeals. But the Supreme Court distinguished the union and bar association contexts from a university environment. It concluded that courts ought not become involved in determining what is germane to a university’s mission and acknowledged universities’ interest in facilitating expression on a broad range of issues. Thus, the court decided that insisting that student fees be allocated by viewpoint-neutral criteria would better protect all interests. Because the parties had stipulated for purposes of the litigation that the Wisconsin method of fee allocation was viewpoint neutral, the court upheld the university with one exception. Allocating fees by referendum, the court suggested, might well not be viewpoint neutral.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977)
  • Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000)
  • Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1 (1990)

See also Academic Freedom; Forced Speech