Lawsuit Against University Highlights Little-Known Violation of Free Speech


A lawsuit against St. Cloud State University and its administrators highlights a serious free speech issue that has largely flown under the radar: Colleges forcing students to fund organizations promoting causes that do not reflect the students’ values.

The Liberty Justice Center and the Upper Midwest Law Center filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging a rule mandating that students attending Minnesota State pay fees to Students United, a left-wing political organization.

Lackie v. Students United centers on the First Amendment rights of students whose viewpoints do not align with the organization’s. The plaintiffs argue that levying mandatory fees to fund the organization’s political activities is compelled speech, forcing individuals to prop up groups that might be working against their personal values.

Tayah Lackie, the lead plaintiff and a graduate of the university said the school did not inform her that she was paying to support Students United’s speech. “I don’t agree with a lot of what Students United says, and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

Lackie said she resents “having to pay for lobbying to eliminate the debt of others who did take on loans.”

Of the myriad of causes Students United supports, eliminating student debt is one of its primary objectives.

Most of Students United’s funding actually comes from student fees, according to the organization’s website. The group received $922,380 in 2023 — 76 pecent of their overall haul — from students being forced to pour their hard-earned cash into the group’s coffers.

The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has long highlighted the problematic aspects of this sneaky method of funding. In one of its reports , the organization explained:

Many students attending public colleges and universities are surprised and sometimes outraged to learn that school rules require them to fund groups that advocate ideas they find morally or politically unacceptable, across the spectrum of student organizations. Mandatory fees, the funding of student groups, and the often arbitrary standards by which such funding occurs raise issues of the highest constitutional and moral importance. Students, faculty, and administrators should understand the principles involved in these issues. Students who believe themselves the victims of unlawful behaviors and double standards should understand both their rights, the limits of those rights, and the means to seek a more just campus.

Students on many campuses understand that the fees they must pay are often used to fund groups that advocate a wide array of beliefs and causes. Most campuses have some combination of groups composed of evangelical Christians; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students; environmentalists; Latin mass Catholics; vegetarians; Muslims; atheists; feminists; anarchists; communists; or conservatives (in addition, indeed, to bagpipers and chess players). Many students ask, “How can the school force me, as a condition of my getting an education here, to fund groups with which I don’t agree?” Starting in the 1970s, students at public colleges and universities have brought numerous lawsuits that asserted, on First Amendment grounds, the right of individual students to opt out of having to fund groups that they find objectionable. The results of such suits are finally becoming clear.

The report also explains that Supreme Court rulings in Wisconsin v. Southworth and Rosenberger v. University of Virginia affirm that educational institutions cannot favor or disfavor certain perspectives when collecting funds from mandatory student fees.

Jacob Huebert, President of the Liberty Justice Center, argued that “A state school can’t make you pay a political group just to be enrolled” and asserted that requiring students to fund Students United “violates students’ First Amendment rights.”

James Dickey, Senior Counsel at the Upper Midwest Law Center, concurred, saying that “Coerced speech and compelled association are violations of your constitutional rights, plain and simple.”

It is amazing that this practice has persisted for so long. But given that many, if not most, students don’t even know they are unwittingly funding political causes with their money, it makes sense that universities have been getting away with this. Moreover, it is worth noting that, like FIRE’s report indicates, these fees are not only being used to push left-wing causes but also conservative-leaning endeavors.

The outcome of Lackie v. Students United could have substantial implications for how these organizations obtain funding. If the court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor, then these groups will have to collect cash in the old-fashioned way: Through persuasion.