Why UNC-CH leftists are right to complain about Coulter’s visit

Ann Coulter, she of the polarizing book titles, is coming to speak this fall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC-CH’s Student Congress, which controls where student activity fees go, has allotted $6,747 to the student group sponsoring Coulter, the Federalist Society, to help pay her speaking fee.

As one would expect, the leftists on campus are incensed about the funding decision. Why should they pay — through their student fees — to support Coulter, whose views they find odious?

In other words, they’re sounding like conservatives, who’ve been objecting to their being made to support leftist causes through student fees for years.

Another way of putting that is, the leftists have a point.

In the October 1998 issue of Clarion, Michael Byrne wrote about the use of student fees for political advocacy. “Many schools now force students, as a condition of attendance, to fund all manner of political groups,” he wrote, which means they are forced to “sustain political advocacy that they probably do not espouse and which, given the choice, would not fund.”

The issue concerns the First Amendment protections of speech and assembly. Leftists understandably don’t want to fund Coulter’s speech or be forced into financial association with the group bringing her to campus. Yet because they cannot avoid paying the student fee, they are put in those positions by the state.

Meanwhile, conservatives at UNC-CH have been documenting the political imbalance in student fees expenditures there for years. According to Carolina Review, in 2000, for example, Student Congress allocated $4,635 for conservative groups, $6,620 for religious groups, and $75,215 for liberal/activist groups. In 2003, Student Congress gave $3,700 to conservative groups, $10,212 to religious groups, and $35,598 to liberal/activist groups.

One might notice in passing that that’s a lot of money for students to be in charge of. P.J. O’Rourke famously opined that “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” Many of the students in student government are teenage boys or are just a year or so removed from being so. And while much of the focus on college costs of late has been escalating tuition, student fees have escalated right along with it.

And while saying the issue is a First Amendment one, the Supreme Court has allowed to stand a challenge to mandatory student fees’ being used to support political and religious speech that individual fee-payers find objectionable. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000), the Court held that a public university may “charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral.”

Nevertheless, the Court has not ruled on what determines viewpoint neutrality, and in fact it remanded to the lower courts to investigate whether Wisconsin’s method counted as such. In Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion for the majority, the fact that a student group may be funded or defunded “by majority vote of the student body” made it “unclear to us what protection, if any, there is for viewpoint neutrality in this part of the process.”

As Kennedy explained, “The whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views. Access to a public forum, for instance, does not depend upon majoritarian consent. That principle is controlling here.”

Wisconsin has revised its policies since the Court ruled, and in 2002 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that its fee system was in compliance with viewpoint neutrality, overturning a federal district court decision of 2001. The appeals court prohibited Wisconsin from funding the travel expenses of ideological, political, or religious groups with student fees collected from students who object to them. The ruling that it overturned had prohibited Wisconsin from forcing objecting students to fund groups to which they were opposed.

So the courts are sensitive to the issue of compelling students to pay for speech with which they disagree, although the criterion of viewpoint neutrality remains to be hashed out. In the meantime, Coulter fans at UNC-CH may rejoice, while leftists accustomed to activity-fee largesse must gnash their teeth — or plan the customary event disruptions. Or both, of course.