Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth,
529 U.S. 217 (2000)

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No. 98-1189. Argued November 9, 1999-Decided March 22, 2000

Petitioner, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (hereinafter University), requires students at the University's Madison campus to pay a segregated activity fee. The fee supports various campus services and extracurricular student activities. In the University's view, such fees enhance students' educational experience by promoting extracurricular activities, stimulating advocacy and debate on diverse points of view, enabling participation in campus administrative activity, and providing opportunities to develop social skills, all consistent with the University's broad educational mission. Registered student organizations (RSO's) engaging in a number of diverse expressive activities are eligible to receive a portion of the fees, which are administered by the student government subject to the University's approval. The parties have stipulated that the process for reviewing and approving RSO applications for funding is administered in a viewpoint-neutral fashion. RSO's may also obtain funding through a student referendum. Respondents, present and former Madison campus students, filed suit against the University, alleging, inter alia, that the fee violates their First Amendment rights, and that the University must grant them the choice not to fund RSO's that engage in political and ideological expression offensive to their personal beliefs. In granting respondents summary judgment, the Federal District Court declared the fee program invalid under Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U. S. 209, and Keller v. State Bar of Gal., 496 U. S. 1, and enjoined the University from using the fees to fund any RSO engaging in political or ideological speech. Agreeing with the District Court that this Court's compelled speech precedents control, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the program was not germane to the University's mission, did not further a vital University policy, and imposed too great a burden on respondents' free speech rights. It added that protecting those rights was of heightened concern following Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, because if the University could not discriminate in distributing the funds, students could not be compelled to fund organizations engaging in political and ideological speech. It extended the District Court's order and enjoined the University from requiring students to pay that



portion of the fee used to fund RSO's engaged in political or ideological expression.


1. The First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech, provided that the program is viewpoint neutral. The University exacts the fee at issue for the sole purpose of facilitating the free and open exchange of ideas by, and among, its students. Objecting students, however, may insist upon certain safeguards with respect to the expressive activities they are required to support. The Court's public forum cases are instructive here by close analogy. Because the complaining students must pay fees to subsidize speech they find objectionable, even offensive, the rights acknowledged in Abood and Keller are implicated. In those cases, this Court held that a required service fee paid by nonunion employees to a union, Abood, supra, at 213, and fees paid by lawyers who were required to join a state bar association, Keller, supra, at 13-14, could be used to fund speech germane to those organizations' purposes but not to fund the organizations' own political expression. While these precedents identify the protesting students' interests, their germane speech standard is unworkable in the context of student speech at a university and gives insufficient protection both to the objecting students and to the University program itself. Even in the union context, this Court has encountered difficulties in deciding what is germane and what is not. The standard becomes all the more unmanageable in the public university setting, particularly where, as here, the State undertakes to stimulate the whole universe of speech and ideas. To insist upon asking what speech is germane would be contrary to the very goal the University seeks to pursue. The vast extent of permitted expression also underscores the high potential for intrusion on the objecting students' First Amendment rights, for it is all but inevitable that the fees will subsidize speech that some students find objectionable or offensive. A university is free to protect those rights by allowing an optional or refund system, but such a system is not a constitutional requirement. If a university determines that its mission is well served if students have the means to engage in dynamic discussion on a broad range of issues, it may impose a mandatory fee to sustain such dialogue. It must provide some protection to its students' First Amendment interests, however. The proper measure, and the principal standard of protection for objecting students, is the requirement of viewpoint neutrality in the allocation of funding support. This obligation was given substance in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., supra, which concerned a student's right to use an extracurricular speech program already in place. The instant case considers the antecedent question whether a public university may require stu-

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A university cannot favor certain ideological viewpoints over others if students must pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students.


The University of Wisconsin used student fees to fund student organizations that engaged in political or ideological speech. Southwork, who was one of the students paying the fees, challenged the policy on First Amendment grounds. The lower courts agreed that the program was unconstitutional and struck it down.



  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

This policy is neutral among viewpoints and does not allocate funds from student fees disproportionately. Students thus are not compelled to support certain viewpoints. However, the program's student referendum policy warrants further scrutiny because it clashes with the overall viewpoint neutrality.


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Case Commentary

The funding program is content-neutral rather than content-specific, so the students have a right to not support the speech with which they do not agree, even though it occurs in a public forum. This is a rare application of the First Amendment to listeners rather than speakers, regarding the right to be free from speech rather than the right to engage in speech.

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