MADISON, Wis. — A federal appeals court panel ruled yesterday that the way the University of Wisconsin System distributes mandatory student fees to campus organizations is constitutional.
A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the standards used in distributing grants were sufficient to guarantee that decisions were neutral. The decision overturned a lower court ruling.
But the panel found problems with the system that will require changes, including how some of the money is distributed and some of the standards student leaders use in distributing grants.
University spokesman Erik Christianson said he did not expect the program would change significantly and praised the decision, which he said allowed the university to continue as a marketplace of ideas.
"It's a place where ideas should be debated and vetted and at the end of the day, the best ones will rise to the top," he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth that the fees themselves were constitutional but sent the case back to district court to examine the distribution method. Later that year, a federal district court judge ruled the system did not have sufficient guidelines to guarantee viewpoint-neutral funding decisions, a requirement established by the Supreme Court.
The university revised the guidelines last year.
Student leaders at UW-Madison give about $2.1 million in grants a year to organizations, according to the Associated Students of Madison.
The appeals panel ruled yesterday that student leaders cannot consider how long groups have been in existence or their previous funding levels in giving out that money.
It also ruled the university must establish guidelines for distributing travel grants, which pay for students to attend conferences and other events.
The university cannot use the fees of objecting students to fund the travel grants until it establishes guidelines guaranteeing those grants are distributed without regard to a group's viewpoint, the appeals panel ruled.
Former UW-Madison student Scott Southworth, who brought the original suit in 1996, said the decision means the university and other U.S. colleges and universities can expect challenges to how they fund student groups.
Southworth and several other students with conservative political views objected to having some of their student-fee money funneled to gay-rights and other organizations.
"It's a huge victory for students all across the nation. Now they've got precedent out there," he said.