Student-press advocates urge Supreme Court to overturn fees case

Monday, June 21, 1999

Three groups representing college journalists asked the U.S. Supreme Court last week to overturn a lower court ruling on mandatory student fees, claiming that the dismantling of such a system would threaten the existence of most campus newspapers and broadcast outlets.

Specifically, the groups contend that an effort to allow students to withhold their fees from groups they find objectionable could likely extend to blocking such money allocated to student publications and broadcast outlets.

“Reporting and commenting on issues and candidates for political office is one of the most important functions of any newspaper,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “It is disturbing to think that a college newspaper would have to give up that right in order to continue publishing.”

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would review the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1998 ruling in Southworth v. Grebe. In that decision, the lower court held that three University of Wisconsin students had a First Amendment right to ensure their student fees weren’t distributed to groups offensive to them on religious grounds.

The Wisconsin attorney general appealed the decision to the high court, arguing that such a funding system enables the university to finance a forum for student expression on campus.

In a brief filed last week, the Student Press Law Center, the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Advisors Inc. warned that the appellate court decision, if allowed to stand, could seriously undermine free expression on campus.

Although the decision does not address college media specifically, the student-press groups contend that student newspapers, radio stations and television stations would fall under its auspices because “the fact is, virtually all student news media provide some sort of political commentary or opinion.”

The brief contends that two key Supreme Court cases — Healy v. James in 1972 and Rosenberger v. University of Virginia in 1995 — assure free-expression protection for college students.

In the Healy case, the court said that “a college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ and we break no new constitutional ground in reaffirming this Nation’s dedication to safeguarding academic freedom.”

The brief noted that the court in Rosenberger had said that public schools cannot withhold student fees from a newspaper as a way to control viewpoint.

“It is difficult to imagine a greater threat to student expression on a college campus than shutting down the primary student newspaper for lack of funding, yet that is the insidious nature of the court of appeals’ decision,” the brief reads.

Student-press advocates say they fear the appellate court decision has already enabled student government leaders at several universities to pull funding from student newspapers.

Last March, the student Senate at Florida A&M; University froze funding of The Famuan after the paper published political editorials about campus elections. In December, student leaders at the University of Rhode Island threatened to halt funding to The Good 5 Cent Cigar after it ran a hotly debated cartoon.

The brief noted that new student government rules at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prohibit the allocation of student fees to any campus group that publishes or makes political endorsements. Such a rule, the student groups say, threatens funding for the Carolina Review, a conservative alternative magazine.

The brief said that “affirmation of the lower court’s decision will at the very least create confusion regarding funding for student publications and will threaten their very existence.”