Ruling Says Fees Must Be Applied Equally

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that mandatory student fees are constitutional, supporting UC Berkeley's system of using money collected from undergraduates to fund student activities.

The decision overturned a circuit court ruling on Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth. A circuit court had previously ruled mandatory student fees unconstitutional on the grounds that some of the subsidized activity groups put forth ideas that offended other students.

But Graduate Assembly President David Friedman said the decision may affect students if the ASUC decided to overhaul the system allowing students to prohibit their fees from funding certain groups.

Currently, students can withhold a portion of their fees that go toward political, religious or ideological organizations on campus.

But the court ruled such a process might not be necessary, leaving individual universities the option of offering the refund.

Sean Unger, chair of UC Berkeley's Committee on Student Fees, said while the court decision upholds the current campus system, the ruling has caused the UC Office of the President to assess the need for a systemwide payback policy.

A decision on whether to make the system voluntary on a campus-by-campus basis is expected in the next three weeks. Individual campuses would then be able to decide if each student could request partial refunds.

The ruling also included a "viewpoint neutral" stipulation, stating that colleges must adhere to the principle of funding student groups without considering the groups' ideologies.

But in his concurrence, which was not the official opinion of the court and therefore no basis for a legal challenge, Justice David Souter said student governments like the ASUC were entitled to fund student organizations as they see fit, likening them to elected officials who could be voted out of office and comparing student fees to taxes.

Friedman said Souter's opinion was more student-friendly than the official court opinion, which was presented by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

"It would give students the most amount of freedom, but the majority opinion isn't bad either," Friedman said. "It still allows student government to function and allows for the free exchange of ideas and the principal of free speech."

The majority opinion, however, questioned the use of referenda to determine how student fees should be spent.

"The student referendum aspect of the program for funding speech and expressive activities, however, appears to be inconsistent with the viewpoint neutrality requirement," the ruling states.

While this comment from the court does not constitute an official decision on the use of referenda, Friedman said it could open the process up to further debate.

"It did not make any judgments to a referendum, although it showed the way (Kennedy) might be leaning," Friedman said. "In three months they're gonna see a lawsuit."

Because it does not receive funding from the ASUC, CalPIRG was not affected by yesterday's ruling. But members still heralded the decision as a victory for free speech.

"This is a victory for students everywhere," said Sierra North, a sophomore and CalPIRG member. "It preserves the marketplace of ideas and gives us a voice."


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