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Student Fees Prevent Free Speech

The University of Colorado Student Union (UCSU) has just mounted a campaign to convince people that requiring students to finance political causes with which they profoundly disagree preserves, protects, and defends the right of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech. In short, a person may say what he likes, but the Constitution does not require others to pay for it. The courts have also recognized that free speech is meaningless without the corresponding freedom not to speak. As Thomas Jefferson put it, [T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.[1] The effect that mandatory support has on the quality of the information transmitted was foreseen by Thomas Jefferson in 1794 when he noted that [I]t is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand for itself.

The elites supporting mandatory student fees generally agree with the Regents of the University of Wisconsin who said that without funding less speech will result, and less controversial speech[and] hateful speech has a place in our society too.[2] Aside from the fact that the Regents inadvertently summed up the tenor of the speech that forced support generally underwrites, they studiously ignored the fact that freeing individuals from the compulsion to pay in no way abridges the free speech.

Without student fees, groups like the CU Women#39;s Resource Center are still free to say what they like and maintain libraries where one can pick up the latest copies of Bitch, Weird Sisters, and Ms., but search in vain for The Women#39;s Quarterly. The only difference, and it is an important one, is that they are now on an equal footing with everyone else in society. They can no longer use government power to extract money from those who disagree with their views.

Those who want to continue using student fees as their own private piggybanks also make much of the supposedly democratic nature of the levies. Because students vote for student government, the argument goes, those who object can work through the democratic process. The majority rules.

One properly responds to this speciousness by repeating a basic principle that everyone ought to have learned in grade school: The First Amendment trumps the democratic process and protects the individual#39;s rights even when a majority of citizens wants to infringe upon them.[3] In short, governments in the United States are supposed to be subordinate to constitutional controls. Broadly speaking, this means that forcing people to pay for political speech that they disagree with is a violation of the First Amendment. In this the Constitution, not the majority, rules.

Student fee freeloaders also make much of the claim that depriving student organizations of their welfare payments compromises the educational mission of the university. They say that eliminating support for diverse student organizations would expose students to fewer educational opportunities. Leaving aside the fact that many if not most of the student organizations supported by mandatory fees promote identical, politically correct, radical left policy prescriptions, such a claim is laughable given the flood of books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and internet sites that deluges everyone with all kinds of opinions every single day.

Nor are student organizations unique in their ability to provide practical experience. The wider community offers thousands upon thousands of opportunities to gain practical experience by volunteering to help others solve the real problems that exist outside the ivory tower. Other than displaying the injustice done by using raw government power to coerce support, just what, specifically, do student groups on the dole have to offer that is so important that it excuses violating an individual#39;s First Amendment rights

What is so remarkable in all of this is the fact that no one seriously disputes that student government routinely uses student fees to promote the political agendas of private groups. Examples abound. Amnesty International publicly lobbies against the death penalty. Environmental organizations, to which individual CU-Boulder students pay a minimum of $5.50 a semester, routinely hold demonstrations and lobby for and against local and national legislation.[4]

Why the UCSU campaign now On August 10, 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that using allocable portions of student fees to fund organizations engaging in political or ideological activities, advocacy, or speech violates students#39; First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has accepted the case. Perhaps those in student government feel that time is running out. If that is the case, they must make the most of their remaining opportunity to educate by spreading misinformation with other people#39;s money.


[1] Thomas Jefferson. 1779. Bill for Religious Freedom. Papers 2:545.

[2] Scott H. Southworth et al. vs. Michael W. Grebe et al. United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 97-3510, decided August 10, 1998, p. 17 of web version at www.kentlaw.edu/7circuit/1998/aug/97-3510.html lt;http://www.kentlaw.edu/7circuit/1998/aug/97-3510.htmlgt; as of 2 Nov 1999.

[3] Ibid., p. 26.

[4] Bursar#39;s Office. University of Colorado at Boulder. 1999-00 Semester Fee Schedule. From website on 2 November 1999, lt;http://www-bursar.colorado.edu/STUDENT.htmgt;. Sum was arrived at by adding most of the environmentally related fees. For advocacy example see the website of the Student Environmental Action Coalition at Boulder, especially the section entitled Action Alerts which included, on 3 November 1999, protests of military spending and welfare reform. lt;http://ucsu.colorado.edu/~seac/action.htmlgt;

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado, lt;https://i2i.org/gt;. This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily (Boulder), for which Linda Gorman is a regular columnist.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
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Copyright 1999 Independence Institute