Court Ruling Threatens to Choke Gay Student Groups at University of Wisconsin

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First amendment dispute leads to court's order to revise student fee system
August 11, 1998

(CHICAGO, August 11, 1998) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday that a federal appeals court ruling against the University of Wisconsin-Madison could choke off support for the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Campus Center and any student groups deemed political or ideological.

Patricia M. Logue, managing attorney for Lambda's Midwest Regional Office in Chicago, said, "The court has ordered a wholesale change in how universities fund campus student groups and virtually guaranteed that many groups of all stripes will be silenced. It is ironic and wrong to do this in the name of the First Amendment."

Ruling Monday in Southworth v. Grebe, a dispute between competing first amendment claims, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with three law students who sued University of Wisconsin (UW) Regents for using mandatory student fees to fund groups to which the students objected, including the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Campus Center.

Lambda filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the gay campus group, which provides education, support, and social programs, and advocates for a more pluralistic university environment and better relations among students and student groups. Lambda itself joined the Center as an amicus because Lambda lawyers often are invited to campuses, including UW's, to speak about civil rights for lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Said Ruth E. Harlow, managing attorney for Lambda's New York headquarters, who worked on the case with Logue, "Education occurs by sifting opinions from all sides. Under traditional first amendment principles, the university is a special setting where diverse groups and viewpoints have to be encouraged and strongly protected. This ruling ignores the university's special role in our society. The court has curtailed a critical university forum for free and open debate about political and ideological views."

The law students are represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group.

Lambda argued that neither courts nor students should be allowed to infringe on funding that supports a constitutionally protected "limited public forum" for free speech. The forum in this case is the system for subsidizing student-sponsored organizations that engage in first amendment activity at the university.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart said, "Three students who do not value this aspect of their education should not be allowed to choke off other voices and harm the entire university community. No one is served by censoring speech and limiting viewpoints -- that is the kind of speech that the First Amendment is meant to protect."

Now marking its 25th anniversary, with offices in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, Lambda is the oldest and largest legal group dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS.

(Southworth v. Grebe, 97-1001)


Contact: Patricia M. Logue 312-663-4413; Ruth E. Harlow 212-809-8585; Peg Byron 212-809-8585, 800-314-5149 pager


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