Case may change how universities across the country can fund student activities
Urging the United States Supreme Court to review a ruling that threatens to silence a gay student support group and unpopular speech on campuses around the country, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Monday asked for reversal in a case brought by some Christian conservative law students at the University of Wisconsin.
Lambda is supporting the University's defense of its funding system for campus groups with fees from all students. The case endangers funding systems for campus activities at public universities nationwide. "Campus groups have a long history of enlivening student discourse and education through exposure to different viewpoints and life experiences.
Public universities cannot be held captive to religious extremists who want to muzzle opposing ideas," said Patricia M. Logue, managing attorney for Lambda's Midwest Regional Office and author of Lambda's friend-of-the-court brief in Southworth v.Grebe.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a ruling last August that would prohibit the University of Wisconsin at Madison from using mandatory student fees to fund various campus groups whose views are objectionable to some students. Said Lambda's managing attorney in New York, Ruth E. Harlow, who worked on the amicus brief with Logue, "The Seventh Circuit's decision erodes free speech on campus. If individual students are allowed to choke-off funding for certain groups just because they dislike those groups' ideas, all students will suffer from a diminished education."
As amicus, Lambda represents the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center, which the law students singled out in their case, and also itself, because Lambda lawyers speak at University events. Lambda's brief argued that the fee system funds a public forum, and the university is obliged under the U.S. Constitution to operate it without regard to viewpoint. Paying fees that support the forum does not infringe the rights of the plaintiff students.
Said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn, also in New York, "Just as taxpayers cannot request a refund when the Mall in Washington, D.C., is used to hold a rally they dislike, the objecting students can't be exempted from supporting a campus forum that allows expression on all sides of the political spectrum."
Dohrn added, "By allowing these conservative Christian students to silence the Center and others they find 'objectionable,' the Seventh Circuit's decision undercuts first amendment protection for marginalized or unpopular groups. The Supreme Court should correct this error."
In a similar student fee funding case, Curry v. University of Minnesota, at the federal district court in Minneapolis, Lambda represents three groups as amici the Queer Student Cultural Center, La Raza Student Cultural Center, and University Young Women.
Founded in 1973, Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS. (Southworth v. Grebe, Case No. 98-1189)