A 5-year-old legal battle over First Amendment rights has culminated in an enormous, nearly $500,000 bill for the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). Back in 2006, UW refused to officially recognize or fund, from student fees, the "Badger Catholic" (then, "Roman Catholic Foundation") student group. After a lawsuit and an injunction from a federal court, UW settled with the group and agreed to recognize it and release the suggested funding for the group’s operation. But soon after, UW backtracked and refused to disburse the portion of the funds that would go toward events that included prayer, worship, or proselytizing.
The resulting protracted legal battle saw both a federal district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decide in favor of the Catholic student group, holding that UW could not engage in viewpoint discrimination and refuse funding to groups simply because they had a religious focus, and that funding for a religious group that comes from the pool of student fees does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the Supreme Court refused to hear UW’s appeal in March, a Wisconsin state court last week ordered UW to pay nearly $500,000 in attorneys’ fees.
While the result is a financial loss for nearly everyone-the taxpayers who support the UW System, the students who miss out on $500,000 that could have been spent on their education, and the school itself-the upside is that perhaps schools like UW will think twice about imposing unconstitutional restrictions on the free speech and freedom of association of students and their organizations. $500,000 is a considerable amount of money to pay when UW could have avoided that loss by simply respecting the First Amendment rights of its students.
Rather than face the eventuality of such large settlements and verdicts in future cases, schools would be well-advised to learn the obvious lessons from this case.