Supreme Court case has implications for N.C. universities

A case before the Supreme Court could change the way public universities in North Carolina and across the nation allocate student-activities fees. The Justices agreed to hear a suit five law students at the University of Wisconsin brought against their school over how the university allocated a portion of the mandatory activity fees it collects. Across the country, there has been several similar cases recently concerning potential First-Amendment violations by universities in their collection and expenditure of mandatory fees.
The Wisconsin students objected to several of the organizations that received funding through the fees, some of which were: the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG), a left-wing lobbying organization; the “Ten Percent Society,” a gay group lobbying for same-sex marriages; the United States Student Association, a socialist lobbying organization; Students of the National Organization for Women; the International Socialist Organization; the Progressive Student Network, another left-wing lobbying organization; and the Wisconsin Campus Women’s Center, which received over $34,000 in 1995-96 and lobbied against abortion legislation.
The university lost the suit in the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. To test the constitutionality of the fees’ uses, the Appeals Court in this case applied a three-prong test from the Supreme Court case Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. The Lehnert case dealt with the collection and expenditure of mandatory union dues. For the dues to be constitutional, the Court ruled, the expenditure of the mandatorily collected due (or fee) must (1) be germane or reasonably related to a legitimate goal of the organization, (2) be justified by a vital policy interest of the organization and (3) not constitute a significant addition to the burdening of free speech. The Appeals Court found that the Wisconsin fees failed all three prongs of the Lehnert test.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue of mandatory student fees and whether their collection and expenditure violate students’ First-Amendment rights. In a case on a university’s refusal to fund a Christian student publication (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia), however, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in her concurring opinion that “the student fee is susceptible to a Free Speech Clause challenge by an objecting student that she should not be compelled to pay for speech with which she disagrees.”
Should the Supreme Court decide, like the Court of Appeals, in favor of the students, it would change how universities collect and disburse mandatory student-activities fees. Right now the average activities fee an undergraduate attending a UNC institution would pay next academic year is $271 (from the proposed fees listing for 1999-2000 from UNC General Administration). The highest activities fee ($395) is collected by the N.C. School of the Arts, and the lowest ($137.32) is collected by UNC–Chapel Hill. Here are the fees collected by other UNC universities: N.C. State, $257.45; UNC-Greensboro, $255; UNC-Wilmington, $330; UNC-Pembroke; $260; N.C. Central, $298; UNC-Charlotte, $311; Western Carolina, $278.20; N.C. A&T State, $188; Fayetteville State, $210; East Carolina, $280.50; Appalachian State, $274.50; Winston-Salem State, $291; UNC-Asheville, $302.50; and Elizabeth City State, $269.