Board of Regents of U. of Wisconsin v. Southworth

Summary

Seven conservative law students backed by a right-wing legal group sued the university as part of a national effort to de-fund minority campus groups, on the theory that students should not have to contribute to groups and causes they opposed. The students prevailed at the federal district court and the court of appeals. But, with reasoning that heavily reflected Lambda Legal’s amicus brief as well as our work with the university, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the first amendment rights of student groups at public universities, finding that students may be required to contribute to a viewpoint-neutral student group system that in turn contributes to the education of all students, whether they agree or disagree with the views expressed by some groups. The Court’s ruling was resisted on its return to the district court, which again ruled the fee system unconstitutional, but ultimately it was upheld by the court of appeals in 2002.

Context

College is a time when many LGBT people find resources and support systems for the first time, often through an LGBT campus group. LGBT students also have the chance to join with others to express who they really are and to work for what they believe in.

Lambda Legal's Impact

Lambda Legal entered this case to protect the free speech and associational rights of all college students and to help thwart the latest in a long string of subsidized cases, over decades, to hinder LGBT campus groups. As a result of this case, LGBT groups throughout the country had their right to access student funds confirmed.

History

  • April 1996 Students file case under First Amendment in federal district court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
  • December 1996 District Judge John Shabaz enters summary judgment for plaintiffs. University appeals to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
  • February 1997 Lambda Legal files initial amicus brief for itself and LGBT Center.
  • July 1997 Appeal dismissed as premature; case sent back for district court to rule on open issues.
  • September/October 1997 Final judgment entered and university again appeals to Seventh Circuit.
  • November 1997 Lambda Legal files second amicus brief with LGBT Center.
  • August 1998 Seventh Circuit rules for students and against university and student groups.
  • January 1999 University asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Seventh Circuit decision.
  • February 1999 Lambda Legal files amicus brief with LGBT Center with Supreme Court in support of accepting case for review.
  • March 1999 Review granted.
  • June 1999 Lambda Legal and amici named above file amicus brief in support of university.

Case Information

Status: Closed
Outcome: Landmark Case

Board of Regents of U. of Wisconsin

Attorneys

Lambda Legal
Patricia M. Logue , Ruth Harlow