KWAME HOLMAN: Like college students across the country, those at the state- run University of Wisconsin pay the school tuition, room and board fees, and student fees. In 1995, all students were required to pay a student fee of $332 a year, some of which went to various campus organizations. The university administration and the student government certified the groups, and decided how much each got. Among the student groups funded last year were the Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group, an environmental group known as WisPIRG, which received $66,000; the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Center, $33,000; and $48,000 for the Campus Women's Center.
ROGER HOWARD: The reason for the funding is not just because the students have asked for it, or because it's nice, but because that out- of-class experience contributes to the richness of the education.
KWAME HOLMAN: But some University of Wisconsin students disagreed. One of them was Scott Southworth.
SCOTT SOUTHWORTH: We objected to WisPIRG, which is an environmental organization which does lobbying in Congress. We objected to the 10 Percent Society, which is a militant homosexual organization. We objected to the International Socialist Organization, which believes we should overthrow our system of government.
KWAME HOLMAN: While a student at the law school in 1996, Southworth sued the university in federal court.
SCOTT SOUTHWORTH: We object to any private student organization getting funding, whether we agree with them or not.
KWAME HOLMAN: The student government defended funding of a wide spectrum of campus groups. Its chairman is Adam Klaus.
ADAM KLAUS: Who's to say what is conservative and what is liberal? But I think the point at hand is that this process is open to anyone who wants it.
KWAME HOLMAN: But a federal district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Southworth and the other complaining students. The University of Wisconsin appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Last month at the university law school, students gathered for a forum on the case.
SCOTT SOUTHWORTH: I am a conservative Christian-- that's religious beliefs; as generally, a Republican-- political beliefs-politically or ideologically conservative. So we listed 18 different organizations with a host of evidence of political and ideological activity which violated our personal beliefs.
SPOKESMAN: But I think we need to note that the groups named, and the groups that will suffer adversely from this are groups that concern students of color, queer students, and women.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Supreme Court's ruling may set new guidelines for the way public universities and colleges disperse funds for student groups.
RAY SUAREZ: We get more on today's arguments from NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, legal affairs reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Well, Jan, let's start with what the university had to say, since they've lost this case in the lower courts.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's right. And they emphasized today that this way of funding student groups is critically important to the university's overall mission. The university has an important role beyond the classroom of exposing students to a wide array of different opinions and ideas, and they argued that by creating this funding mechanism to then disperse to all these student groups, that they're furthering the First Amendment, they're not affecting or compromising students' belief or First Amendment beliefs, but they're in fact furthering First Amendment ideals by fostering this public debate and more speech.
RAY SUAREZ: And what did the lawyers for the students have to say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, of course, they see it very, very differently, and they see the First Amendment in this case very differently. They say, well, yes, you know, you are violating our constitutional rights. We should not be compelled to support speech that we disagree with. We may not say, and we certainly don't necessarily say that the International Socialist Organization can't exist at Madison, but we shouldn't have to give our money to help it or to help support it. They point to a series of cases that emphasize that the First Amendment protects a person's right to speak freely, and it also protects a person's right not to speak, that a person can't be compelled to speak.
The Supreme Court, picking up on that line of thinking, has ruled that a state can't force a student to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or it can't punish a motorist in New Hampshire for blocking out the live free or die on their license plate. And then they looked to these other cases that the Supreme Court has decided in more recent terms, involving unions and state bar associations. And in those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that unions and bar associations can collect mandatory fees from their members, but they can't force the members to support political or ideological speech that they oppose that has nothing to do with the purposes of the organization.
RAY SUAREZ: And what could you tell from the shape of the questioning and from which Justices?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, that's one of the interesting things about this argument was that you couldn't tell anything. I mean, so many times, and obviously I'm always reluctant to predict how the court's going to rule after an argument, but so many times you can get a sense of where the Justices may with headed or what their concerns might be. Not at all today, and I think that's because this case presents so many different competing legal principles. And there are so many ways that the court could resolve the case. Let's say they were to side with the university. There's still a lot of different legal paths that they could take to reach that ultimate conclusion.
So in the court today, the Justices went from one constitutional concern to another. You didn't have Justice Souter appearing at odds with Justice Scalia, at least not to the degree that you normally do. So it's very difficult to predict. But for example, Justice Souter, he did seem concerned with the position that the university was advocating, mainly because he disagreed with their legal theory. He didn't necessarily seem to think that the university shouldn't be allowed to do this. So I think this is very... going to be a really hard one to predict because of the complex issues that it raises.
RAY SUAREZ: Did the Justices spend much time trying to examine the machinery, the ways that these different groups are funded, which ones get funded and which ones don't?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes, the first part of the argument focused on those kind of technical issues of fact. I mean, who decides? Do students decide? Who has the final say? You know, is there a check? Does an administrator have a check off to decide what who gets this kind of funding? And the case... there are three different ways these student groups get funding that are being challenged. The student government doles out funding to a bunch of groups. The law students, the conservative law students are challenging some of those groups. The organization, or the General Student Services Fund doles out grants to other groups like the Campus Women's Center.
So they're challenging how some of those funds are doled out. And then there's a third way, the Public Interest Research Group or WisPIRG, as they mentioned in the setup piece, that got funding. And that was through a student referendum. The students actually approved of that group getting funding by referendum. The Justices suggested they might keep that referendum issue off to the side and just focus on the other more traditional ways that these, student government and the grants would get - you know - a big pot of money and then dole it out as the groups applied for the money, again, without looking at the group's particular viewpoints, doing so in a neutral manner.
RAY SUAREZ: If the court was to side with the students, saying in effect, look, we agree with you, your student activity fees shouldn't go to funding groups that you don't like, would this immediately send a ripple out through the state universities of the country? Or would it just apply narrowly because of Wisconsin's particular model for funding these groups?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the state university and a lot of the people, there are many, many organizations that have filed in support of the university in this case, and on the other side, too - argued that, yes, it would have a dramatic impact and would require universities to reconfigure how they're going to support student organizations. They might have to do it like the United Way, where you can pick which groups you'll support, or they might have to do it where, you know, you'll get some certain amount of money refunded back to you. So, yes, I mean, I think most people say this could have a pretty significant impact on how universities dole out some of these funds.
RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, didn't the court rule on a similar case earlier in the 90's at the University of Virginia?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, that case, yes, than case got some discussion today, because that presented the flip side of this issue. That case was called Rosenberger. It involved a Christian student newspaper that applied for funding through this big pot of money that goes from student activity fees. The university denied it, saying, no, you're a religious organization, separation of church and state; we can't give you funding. The court sided with the students in that case, and said that the universities have to administer these funds neutrally.
RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenberg, thanks for coming over.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thanks