Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth
529 U.S. 217 (2000)

  • At UW, all students were charged a mandatory ‘student activity fee’ as part of their tuition. This fee was used to support student organizations.
    • Some of these student organizations had political or ideological purposes (e.g. Young Republicans, Students for Choice, etc…)
  • Some students, including Southworth objected to having to pay to support groups they opposed. They sued, claiming that the school was interfering with their 1st Amendment right to free association.
    • Southworth was particularly concerned about his fees going to “multi-cultural groups, environmental groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered groups.”
    • Southworth pointed to previous court decisions that forbid unions and professional associations from using mandatory fees to support speech some members found objectionable.
    • UW argued that the fees were appropriate to support the education mission of the school.
  • The Trial Court found for Southworth. UW appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. UW appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that as long as UW’s program was viewpoint-neutral, it was constitutional.
      • So basically, as long as UW gave money to any student group that asked for it, there was no constitutional issue. If on the other hand, they made some ideological judgment about who to give money to, then that would not be constitutional.
        • They can differentiate between groups based on how many members they have and what their needs are, but they can’t make funding contingent on the content of the group’s message.
    • The Court found that since universities are central to the ‘marketplace of ideas’, they are different from unions and professional associations and therefore enjoy different free speech protections.
      • “…the means of implementing 1st Amendment protections adopted in those decisions are neither applicable nor workable in the context of extracurricular student speech at a university.”