High Court Upholds Funding for Student Groups at Public Universities

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Lambda hails ringing victory for free speech, rights of gay, other minority groups
March 22, 2000

(NEW YORK, March 22, 2000) — The unanimous United States Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday upholding funding systems commonly used by universities to support student activities protects free speech and the rights of all students at public universities, said Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents gay and other student groups involved in the case.

“The very essence of learning is the ability of students to freely exchange points of view that are diverse, innovative, and challenging. The Justices affirmed that so long as a University program offers funding for expression on a viewpoint-neutral basis, each student can be required to fund that program as part of paying for his or her education,” said Lambda Managing Attorney Ruth E. Harlow.

Harlow, along with Lambda Supervising Attorney Patricia M. Logue, co-authored Lambda’s friend-of-the court brief on behalf of itself as well as the University of Wisconsin’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center, and a number of other student groups whose funding was jeopardized by the case. Over 50 student groups from across the country, including the National Consortium of Directors of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resources in Higher Education, were also represented by Lambda.

The High Court upheld the University of Wisconsin’s student activities fees system, which is typical of many colleges across the country to fund diverse student services and activities. Because students contribute to a neutral forum that supports all viewpoints – rather than a particular ideology – the University did not compel any speech nor violate the First Amendment, the Justices ruled.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, saying, “Universities possess significant interests in encouraging students to take advantage of the social, civic, cultural, and religious opportunities available in surrounding communities and throughout the country.” He was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice David H. Souter wrote a concurring opinion which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer.

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, “It’s a great day for Freedom of Expression when attempts to impose an ideological veto on some speech are defeated.”

Backed by the right-wing legal group Northstar Legal Center, the case was initiated by seven conservative law students who insisted on refunds of a part of their fees rather than allow the University to allocate funds to 18 student groups including those that supported women’s and gay civil rights, and other causes the plaintiffs opposed.

Wednesday’s ruling reverses an August 1998 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit striking down the University’s funding system. Lambda argued that the appellate court not only failed to appreciate the unique educational purpose of universities, but also misapplied legal standards originally developed for labor unions.

Lambda is opposing another student-fee challenge filed by Northstar, Curry v. University of Minnesota, currently pending in the federal district court in Minneapolis. Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal group dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/ AIDS.

(University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, No. 98-1189)


CONTACT:Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984 (pager), or Ruth E. Harlow 212-809-8585 x 210


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