NYPIRG Held Entitled to SUNY Student Fees; Court Finds no Constitutional Violation

DEBORAH PINES STUDENTS at the State University of New York at Albany can be required to support an ideological group with their mandatory student activity fees, a unanimous federal appeals court panel ruled last week.

But the student fees must be used only for on-campus activities and the special group in this case, the New York Public Interest Research Group Inc., can no longer automatically enroll every student paying the activity fee, according to an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Carroll v. Blinken, 91-7877.

The university’s student fees support dozens of on-campus athletic, social, recreational, service, ethnic and political organizations. The activities must have an educational, cultural, recreational or social purpose and be approved by the SUNY Albany student association and the university’s president.

The interests of the university — the promotion of extracurricular life, the transmission of skills and civic duty, and the stimulation of energetic campus debate — are "substantial enough" to justify infringing the First Amendment rights of students against compelled speech, Judge Irving R. Kaufman wrote for the Second Circuit. The institution’s interests "would be served less effectively" were the activity fee provision to be struck down,"

Judge Kaufman wrote in an opinion circulated to the other panel members before his death on Feb. 1. The other members, Judges George C. Pratt and Roger J. Miner, concurred. The appeals court ruling affirmed in part and reversed in part last year’s decision by Southern District Judge Richard Owen, who held there was no infringement in the university’s transfer of $ 3 of a mandated $ 55 student activity fee to NYPIRG.

The Second Circuit ruling remanded the case to Judge Owen to fashion as "unintrusively as possible" procedures that ensure NYPIRG spends student fees only on the campus where they were raised. In 1989, such fees at SUNY Albany provided $ 57,600 to the $ 2.7 million statewide budget of NYPIRG which supports 60 full-time staff members and acts as a lobbyist for more environmental protections and against nuclear power and increased defense spending.

About 30 percent of NYPIRG’s state budget comes from similar student fee transfers at SUNY Albany and other New York colleges. The lawsuit challenging the fee transfer was brought by 11 students who disagree with NYPIRG’s causes and methods. They sought to enjoin the transfer of part of their mandatory fee to NYPIRG as unconstitutional compelled speech. They also objected to NYPIRG’s practice of making student membership automatic.

Students’ Interests In the decision, Judge Kaufman first determined that NYPIRG "like many other student groups, is an ideological organization." Then he weighed the interests of students against the interests of the university. On the students’ side he found "their right to be free from compelled speech suffers when NYPIRG uses student funds to raise issues on campus, organize the community and lobby the Legislature in pursuit of ‘economic and social justice.’"

On the university side, however, he found more compelling the university’s interests in promoting extracurricular activities and wide debate inherent in the view that a university is "more than a sum of classes in its course catalog." He also noted that courts traditionally "accord wide latitude to universities to define and carry out their own educational missions." To be sure the burdens on speech, however, are "narrowly drawn," Judge Kaufman ordered that student funds not support off-campus NYPIRG activities.

He found that the benefits provided by on-campus activities "vanish when NYPIRG money is spent in the halls of the State Legislature or at the main offices in New York City." He also voided NYPIRG’s policy of making members of all SUNY Albany students saying it "serves no substantial SUNY Albany interest" and skews the "university’s otherwise neutral support of a variety of viewpoints" because NYPIRG is the only campus group with such a policy.

Martin S. Kaufman and Douglas Foster of the Atlantic Legal Foundation, Inc. represented the students challenging the NYPIRG fee transfer. Jocelyn Lee Jacobson and Alexander R. Sussman of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, represented NYPIRG. Andrea Green, an Assistant Attorney General, represented SUNY Albany.