APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY, (D.C. Civil No. 79-2811)
Before: ADAMS, WEIS, and WISDOM*fn* , Circuit Judges
The plaintiff students contend that a mandatory fee imposed on them by a university for the specific purpose of supporting an independent organization whose aims they oppose is an infringement on their First Amendment rights. The district court held that the funding procedure was permissible because the outside organization contributed to the education of its student members. We conclude that because the educational component is only incidental to the organization's ideological objectives, the educational benefits are not adequate to overcome the constitutional objections. Consequently, we will vacate the district court's judgment and direct that collection of the mandatory fee be enjoined.
In an earlier appeal in this litigation we reversed a summary judgment in favor of defendants. Galda v. Bloustein, 686 F.2d 159 (3d Cir. 1982) (Galda I). On remand, the district court held a two week bench trial. After filing extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court entered judgment for the defendants. Galda v. Rutgers, 589 F. Supp. 479 (D.N.J. 1984).
This suit for injunctive relief was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by current and former students at Rutgers Camden College of Arts and Sciences, a unit of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Plaintiffs asserted that their First Amendment rights were violated by the University's imposition of a mandatory, refundable fee the the specific purpose of supporting the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
The New Jersey PIRG has members at a number of other college campuses in New Jersey. It is an independent, non-profit corporation, controlled by a board of student representatives at the state-wide level. It maintains a paid staff consisting of a director, one part-time and six full-time employees.
PIRG is politically nonpartisan, but participates in state legislative matters and actively engages in research, lobbying and advocacy for social changes. Its staff and student members have lobbied for a federal student assistance act, the Equal Rights Amendment, a nuclear weapons freeze, and the enactment of the Pine Lands Preservation Act. PIRG also opposed the construction of the Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware River.
In addition, members of the organization drafted proposed legislation mandating a study of energy production in New Jersey and testified in opposition to an increase in utility rates before an administrative agency. PIRG members have researched and published documents on a number of other consumer and environmental issues. The organization also provides internships for students who receive academic credit for the work they perform.*fn1
Because PIRG is an organization independent of the University, it is ineligible to receive money from the general student activities fee. It has, however, qualified for financial support under the Rutgers "neutral funding policy." To do so PIRG was required to submit a "concept plan" to the University outlining the organization's educational value. Following administration approval, the next step was to participate in an election where PIRG was required to obtain the vote of at least 25% plus one of the student body on a particular campus. The neutral funding policy also requires that the votes must represent a majority of the ballots actually cast.
PIRG's concept plan has received the University's approval in each of the three-year periods in which it was submitted, and it has been successful in securing the necessary affirmative votes in most of the student referenda.
As a result of PIRG's qualification under the Rutgers' funding procedures, each student enrolled at a particular campus must pay a mandatory fee of $3.50 to PIRG. In a twelve year period, the organization received more than $800,000 in this fashion and currently receives over $100,000 per year from the mandatory assessment. A student who does not wish to support PIRG is required to request a refund, which is generally returned several months later.
In the first proceeding, without exploring the plaintiffs' contentions, the district court granted summary judgment for defendants, holding that since the fee was refundable, there had been no constitutional infringement. Galda v. Bloustein, 516 F. Supp. 1142 (D.N.J. 1981). On appeal from that ruling, we held that the refund provision was not adequate and on that record even a temporary exaction of the PIRG fee from plaintiffs could not be justified. Galda I, 686 F.2d at 169. We remanded because there was a genuine issue of material fact on whether assessment of the fee infringed the plaintiffs' constitutional rights.
At trial PIRG's organizational structure was developed in some detail. In essence, the court found that the group's policies were made by the state board of student directors, which also had the authority to hire and discharge the salaried executive director. In addition to an executive director, PIRG hires a paid staff that manages the day-to-day operations of the organization.
Plaintiffs produced three expert witnesses who testified that PIRG operates as a political action group and its purpose is to "pursue change in the political process." One expert opined that PIRG "consistently represents and adheres to a liberal ideology and views American society as covertly oppressive." Another of the plaintiffs' experts conceded that he "could not quantify PIRG' political and non-political activities" and that many of its projects were non-ideological.
Defendants produced four experts, including the President of Rutgers, who testified to what they believed were the educational benefits to the students participating in PIRG. These included "learning to advocate and thoroughly learning their adversary's position in order to rebut them", forcing students to "publicly campaign and promote an organization", providing an opportunity "to investigate, research, write, and advocate their positions before governmental agencies," providing "students with leadership opportunities," and "teaching students to function as citizens." 589 F. Supp. at 493-94.
A number of faculty members as well as current and former students testified about their participation in PIRG activities. The students noted that their experiences included public speaking, learning the use of a law library, and developing interest in a public service, governmental career which some followed after graduation. The faculty members talked favorably about the opportunity for, and close supervision of internships.
One faculty member spoke especially about the "stream walking" phase of the environmental project for clean streams. In this activity, participants walked along water courses in search of illegal polluters who were then reported to the Environmental Protections Agency. The court found this to be a major activity. Faculty members testified that the stream walking program was valuable because of the students' opportunity to learn about the environment and governmental process.
The defense witnesses did not dispute that PIRG took positions on political as well as ideological issues and worked actively to advance them. An examination of PIRG's financial documents by a certified public accountant as well as an independent review by the district court established that it was not possible to "numerically quantify 'political' and 'educational' components of PIRG."
The district court found that Rutgers "has made a carefully reasoned decision that PIRG is a valuable educational adjunct to the more traditional classroom activities." PIRG had "engaged in projects that can be objectively characterized as both 'educational' and 'political'. Because of the fact that some activities ostensibly political are also inherently educational, it is impossible to neatly quantify PIRG's activities into these simplistic categories." 589 F. Supp. at 495.
In passing on the experts' testimony, the court stated that to the extent the parties differ "about the nature of PIRG and its contributions to the university community, the court finds there exists some difference of opinion in the academic community." But, the court concluded, "PIRG has a very substantial educational component, and its presence at Rutgers significantly enhances the educational opportunities available for students at that institution." The court therefore found that "plaintiffs have failed to overcome the presumptive validity of the University's judgment and have thus failed to make out a prima facie case that their constitutional rights have been violated." Accordingly, judgment was entered for defendants.
Preliminarily, it is helpful to briefly review the nature of the constitutional right at stake. Plaintiffs assert that they may not be compelled to contribute to an organization which espouses and promotes ideological causes they oppose. The contours of this right are still in the developmental stage. Frequently cited as the seminal case is Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 87 L. Ed. 1628, 63 S. Ct. 1178 (1943), where the Court recognized an individual's right to refuse on religious grounds to participate in the traditional flag salute. The Court described the right as freedom from "a compulsion of students to declare a belief."
The Barnette rationale was extended to the forced payment of "union shop" or "agency shop" fees, portions of which were used for purposes not germane to collective bargaining activities. Those decisions beginning with International Association of Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1141, 81 S. Ct. 1784 (1961), progressed through Railway Clerks v. Allen, 373 U.S. 113, 10 L. Ed. 2d 235, 83 S. Ct. 1158 (1963), to Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209, 52 L. Ed. 2d 261, 97 S. Ct. 1782 (1977).
In Abood, the Court found "meritorious" the argument that employees "may constitutionally prevent the Union's spending a part of their required service fees to contribute to political candidates and to express political views unrelated to its duties as exclusive bargaining representatives." Id. at 234. More recently in Ellis v. Brotherhood of Railway, Airline & Steamship Clerks, 466 U.S. 435, 80 L. Ed. 2d 428, 104 S. Ct. 1883, 52 U.S.L.W. 4499 (1984), without discussing the constitutional principle, the Court devoted its attention solely to developing a proper remedy for the violation of the First Amendment right not to support an ideological view the person opposes.
In another context, the Court has recognized the right of an individual to reject a state measure that forces him, "as a part of his daily life. . . to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable." Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 715, 51 L. Ed. 2d 752, 97 S. Ct. 1428 (1977). See also Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626, 85 L. Ed. 2d 652, 105 S. Ct. 2265, 53 U.S.L.W. 4587, 4594 (1985).
In Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 46 L. Ed. 2d 659, 96 S. Ct. 612 (1976), the Court held that contributing to a political message is protected by the First Amendment. See also Federal Election Comm'n. v. National Conservative Political Action Committee, 470 U.S. 480, 84 L. Ed. 2d 455, 105 S. Ct. 1459, 53 U.S.L.W. 4293 (1985). Commenting on Buckley, the Court in Abood observed that compelling, as well as prohibiting, "contributions for political purposes works no less an infringement" on constitutional rights, 431 U.S. at 234.
Significantly, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 55 L. Ed. 2d 707, 98 S. Ct. 1407 (1978), a First Amendment controversy, the Court drew no subject matter distinction between partisan political topics and those of general public concern.
In short, what Abood holds objectionable is the "compulsory subsidization of ideological activity" by those who object to it, 431 U.S. at 237. Commentators have debated the basis supporting this right. It may be a broad concept of "individual freedom of mind," Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. at 714, or a ban on coerced affirmation of distasteful views, or a right not to be subjected to a limitation on freedom of conscience, or perhaps a right to maintain silence in the face of a governmental pronouncement.*fn2 We resist the temptation to expound on these absorbing theories because whatever the source or underlying rationale, the Supreme Court's precedents establish to our satisfaction that plaintiffs have presented a valid constitutional interest for consideration.
Although the jurisprudential under pinnings for the constitutional right are complex, the issue here is a narrow one and may perhaps best be explained by eliminating what is not at stake. This case does not address the problem presented by a state university's allocation of a mandatory non-refundable student activity fee. We are not concerned here with the question whether an organization with PIRG's philosophic outlook may be funded through the general activities fund as are other campus organizations representing diverse views.
In short, we do not enter the controversy on whether a given campus organization may participate in the general activities fee despite the objections of some who are required to contribute to that fund. See, e.g., Kania v. Fordham, 702 F.2d 475 (4th Cir. 1983); Maryland Public Interest Research Group v. Elkins, 565 F.2d 864 (4th Cir. 1977). See also Note, "Fee Speech:" First Amendment Limitations on Student Fee Expenditures, 20 Cal. W.L. Rev. 279 (1984).
And, although we are reluctant to belabor the obvious, it apparently must be made absolutely clear that in no way does this case present the issue of whether PIRG or any other organization may be restricted in the expression of its views on campus or elsewhere. Nor does this case in any way question PIRG's right to finance its operations by voluntary contributions from those who agree with its objectives.
As Galda I emphasized, there is a distinction between PIRG and student organizations that are funded through the student activity fee. We noted that the student activity fee is used to subsidize a variety of student groups, and therefore that assessment can be "perceived broadly as providing a 'forum' for a diverse range of opinion." In contrast, "PIRG does not provide a forum for the expression of differing views" but is a "group." Id. at 166. ...