Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a mandatory student activity fee used to facilitate extracurricular student speech at a public university violates the First Amendment.


The Supreme Court of the United States held the fee constitutional, reversing the Seventh Circuit.


The University of Wisconsin, Madison required students to pay an activity fee that supported “various campus services and extracurricular student activities,” including diverse ideological and political expression. Three University of Wisconsin law students challenged the fee system in 1996 as unconstitutional. The three Christian students contended that by funneling their money to groups they morally oppose, the university violates their freedom of speech and religious liberty. Both a federal district court and a federal appeals court ruled that the fee system violated the students’ free speech rights.

Importance of Case

One of the critical cases defining the legal landscape of student free speech rights in higher education, Southworth extended vital constitutional protections to public higher education. Citing its 1995 decision in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995), the Court found in Southworth that if a university has decided its mission is to encourage and facilitate speech on campus then it is entitled to institute a mandatory student fee system. However, such a fee system must be viewpoint-neutral in the allocation of student funding. In Rosenberger, the Court found that the University of Virginia could not constitutionally withhold funds from a Christian student publication.

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