Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court set guidelines for how universities can distribute students’ tuition fees, the University of California is working to change its fee guidelines to comply with the decision.
The biggest change the UC has considered would require students to pay tuition fees to fund specific groups. Students are currently able to petition to have these fees, called lock-ins, waived. Under the proposed system, however, the allocations to campus groups would have to be made in a fair manner and regardless of the organization’s beliefs.
On March 22, 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted against a student seeking reimbursement for fees he had paid as part of a mandatory student activity fee imposed by the University of Wisconsin in the Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth. The fees were used to fund student organizations involved in political or ideological speech that the student objected to and did not wish to support.
The Supreme Court also ruled, however, that the funds allocation process should be viewpoint neutral and universities may not support some viewpoints at the expense of others.
In wake of the decision, the University of California is considering revisions to system-wide student fee guidelines as part of a general policy review, said Melissa Unger, the Field Organizing director of the UC Student Association.
“Most campuses give money in a viewpoint-neutral manner, the Supreme Court just wanted to make sure of it,” Unger said. “Not only will the current system exist as it exists, but we’d just like to make sure that … there aren’t any limitations in funding. So any limitations that exist currently should be lifted.”
Not many actual changes are expected in UC guidelines, but Unger said the decision serves more as an affirmation of University policy than a call for change.
The only thing that would change for UCSB is that students could have mandatory lock-in fees, whereas they currently are able to petition for a refund of their fees if they disagree with a specific organization’s projects, External Vice-President of Statewide Affairs Eneri Rodriguez said.
Current A.S. Finance Board policy allows students to petition for a refund of their portion of fees that funds any activity or organization they object to or find offensive. Although this policy will likely change in light of the Southworth decision, students rarely utilize it as is, according to A.S. Finance Board Council Member Jesse Tejeda.
“It is really rare. Students do come in asking for a full refund of their base fee but we can’t do that,” he said. “They can petition to have their money for each event returned, which is a minimal amount and tends to be something like a nickel to every thousand dollars we’ve given to an organization.”
The Supreme Court decided that it is legal to lock in those fees and to support the student groups, but in the future campuses must take viewpoint neutrality into consideration when allocating funds, Rodriguez said.
“Viewpoint-neutral,” as the Supreme Court worded its decision, does not in any way refer to the actual content of the program or organization, but rather the allocation process used in distributing funds to the organizations. The board or committee responsible for deciding appropriations must make its decisions without the ideology or goals of the organization in mind, Center for Campus Free Speech Organizer Matt Madden said.
“It’s not the groups themselves that need to be viewpoint neutral, but the process,” Madden said. “So a student organization can apply for funding to promote one viewpoint as long as the process they’re participating in is open to all different viewpoints.”
Although most organizations do not have a problem with current policy, the Southworth decision ensures that all groups receive an equal opportunity for funding even if the student body does not agree with their stances.
“If certain groups are systematically finding difficulties getting fees then changes need to made,” Madden said. “Thanks to Southworth, no student groups should have problems getting fees because according to the Supreme Court the process should be open and free and fair. Student groups that are running programs that students find worthwhile should have no problem receiving funding.”
The decision strengthens extracurricular student activities and will contribute to better forums of thought and conversation, Madden said. The University can determine that its mission has been successful if it has provided students a means to engage in dynamic discussions outside the lecture hall.
“The marketplace of ideas created through student fees is really wide and boundless,” he said. “The Supreme Court gave universities the green light for students to participate in a wide range of expression on and off campus.”