As I type this post, my colleagues at the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom are arguing a critical case before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The subject: the use and abuse of mandatory student activity fees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For at least the last 22 years, UW-Madison has been requiring each and every student to pay large sums of money to fund student expression. For at least the last 22 years, the university has channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars per year into various leftist organizations — like Ralph Nader-inspired WISPIRG or (Hugh Hefner inspired?) Sex Out Loud – while fighting an ongoing, rear-guard battle against equal funding of conservative and religious organizations.
In recent years, UW students have started to lose patience with the bias and blatant viewpoint discrimination, filing three federal lawsuits in three years. Today, the Seventh Circuit will consider whether the university may essentially ignore Supreme Court precedent and treat religious speech differently from secular speech. Specifically, the university violated a settlement agreement in a previous case by withholding approximately $35,000 in funds it had agreed to pay the Roman Catholic Foundation. The District Court issued a declaratory judgment against the university, but refused to issue an injunction and refused to order repayment of the fees. The Roman Catholic Foundation appealed the denial of the injunction and denial of fees, while UW appealed the declaratory judgment.
Lest anyone think that UW-Madison is somehow unique in its viewpoint discrimination, the misappropriation of mandatory student fees to fund left-wing activism on a vast scale has long been a problem. For example, Michael Moore’s 2004 “Slacker Uprising,” designed to energize the college vote for John Kerry, was largely funded by a massive infusion of student fees. On other campuses, student-fee discrimination is so pervasive and longstanding that religious and conservative organizations often don’t even bother to apply for funds.
In the Seventh Circuit at least, all that could change if Roman Catholic Foundation prevails. Students, for the first time, could have real assurance that they have equal access to the funds they are forced to pay. And that would be a true victory for free speech, for legal equality, and for fundamental fairness.