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Expensive free speech

National | Christian students challenge mandatory funding of leftist activist groups on Wisconsin campus

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

As a senior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Amy Schoepke decided to do a political science paper on the funding of student organizations by her university. She wanted to learn the extent to which mandatory student activity fees subsidize local and national student organizations with chapters on the University of Wisconsin campus. "The fact that I had to do research illustrates how clandestine the system is," she says. "Students don't know what they're being forced to pay for." Mrs. Schoepke was startled by what she found. She discovered, for instance, that the Campus Women's Center used student activity funding to promote a pro-abortion agenda at both the state and national level. "On the walls around me were pro-abortion posters, pornographic images of women by lesbian artists, and an array of anti-male feminist literature," she says of her visit to the center to interview its director. "Since my husband was also a student at the university, both of us were actually being forced to subsidize all of this. I couldn't believe it." The experience prompted her to join other Christian students in a lawsuit challenging the university's activity-fee system. A federal court ruled in their favor, and last summer an appeals court upheld that ruling. The university, with the support of the ACLU and more than a dozen activist organizations, appealed again, and in October the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, Southworth vs. University of Wisconsin. At issue: Does the use of mandatory student activity fees to fund political and ideological organizations at state universities violate the First Amendment rights of students? The ACLU doesn't think so. "The students here are not required to directly fund money to an organization they don't like," the group's Jon Fulow told the leftist magazine In These Times, in a contradiction of ACLU views toward indirect taxpayer funding of religious groups. "What they're doing is funding a pool, creating a public forum." But Mrs. Schoepke and the other students don't believe they should have to create such public forums, especially when the lion's share of funding goes to groups affiliated with the academic left. Law student Scott Southworth became involved in the controversy after watching film of protesters outside a Wisconsin church organized by a homosexual organization that receives student activity funding. According to Mr. Southworth, "The protest featured a woman shouting 'Bring back the lions!' to people entering the church. I couldn't believe that I was being compelled to pay for attacks on Christians." He subsequently learned that this same organization, as well as other radical groups such as a Marxist student organization, all used student activity funding to engage in lobbying and political activity. "I found that one radical group was working with legislators to directly introduce legislation!" says Mr. Southworth. He also learned that student activity funding had been used to fund a lesbian and gay film festival on the University of Wisconsin campus. Mr. Southworth recalls: "One advertisement for the festival described a film about two homosexual men parenting a Honduran boy. Another publicity poster for the festival advertised a film featuring a lesbian 'showing off her sex-positive attitude with a range of Fisher Price toys.' I was outraged that I was paying for a film festival featuring a woman engaging in sexual acts with children's toys." Many Christian students simply accept mandatory student activity fees as part of the price to be paid for attending an elite university. But the odds were improved significantly for Mr. Southworth, Mrs. Schoepke, and their friends when the Alliance Defense Fund stepped in to help them, allowing the students to argue their case before the nation's highest court. So soon the Supreme Court will decide: Does free speech and "diversity" on campus require subsidized activism? Or was Thomas Jefferson right when, in defense of his Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, he argued that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical"?

-Matt Daniels is president of the Massachusetts Family Institute

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