Topkins v. Williams College 312 U.S. 806 (1992)

Case Topic

Topkins v. Williams College is a First Amendment case involving a potential conflict between the free speech and establishment of religion clauses.  This case addresses whether or not a public university that funds student organizations can exclude religious activities or religiously affiliated organizations from eligibility for funding. It also addresses whether or not a public university is compelled by the First Amendment establishment clause to exclude religious organizations from funding.

Summary of the Issues and Facts of the Case

According to the Guidelines at Williams College, Recognized Student Organizations (RSO’s) are eligible to receive funds from the mandatory Student Fee Fund (SFF). The Guidelines prohibit an RSO’s “religious activity.” Wigand Publications (WP), an RSO whose mission is “to challenge Christians to live, in word and in deed, according to the faith they proclaim and to encourage students to consider what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ means,” requested SFF funds to pay for off-campus printing of their newspaper. The request was denied on the grounds that the newspaper constituted a “religious activity.” After both the Federal District Court and the Fourth Circuit Court ruled in favor of the university, the case went before the United States Supreme Court.

The key legal issues in this case are 1) the First Amendment free speech guarantee, 2) the First Amendment establishment clause, and 3) equal protection provided in the Fourteenth Amendment. With regard to free speech questions, WP argued that the SFF was a “limited public forum”, open for use by the public, and upon which restrictions may be imposed only if there is a compelling state interest. The university argued that the SFF was a “non-public forum”, therefore not a forum for public communication, and upon which reasonable restrictions can be imposed. The establishment clause came into question when the courts addressed the distinction between a religious perspective expressed in a student publication and a “religious activity” defined by the Guidelines as “any activity that primarily promotes a particular belief in or about a deity or ultimate reality.” WP maintained that denial of funding for a publication that expresses a religious viewpoint violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment, while the university held that the establishment clause compelled it to withhold funds from a “religious activity.”  With regard to equal protection, WP maintained that the Guidelines denied them the benefits to which other student groups were entitled. WP argued that the Guidelines unconstitutionally discriminated against their religious speech by denying them the benefits that other groups engaged in “religious activities” had received. According to the college, decisions regarding funding of student activities are not based on “discriminatory intent,” but are dictated by the more compelling need to adhere to the separation of Church and State.

Court Decision

The United States Supreme Court determined in a 5 to 4 ruling that the university’s refusal to fund printing of a student-published religious newspaper 1) violated the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, and 2) was not excused by a need to comply with the First

Amendment establishment clause.  The SFF was found to be a “limited public forum” such that it could not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint or perspective. Since funds were denied because of WP’s viewpoint, the university was found to have violated the students’ free speech and equal protection rights. Furthermore, it was found that funding the WP would not constitute an endorsement of a particular religious establishment simply because it paid a third party (the printer) to help produce a student publication that happened to have a religious perspective. The court concluded, therefore, that because university funding would be “neutral toward religion,” the establishment clause of the First Amendment would not be violated.

Importance to Higher Education Administrators

Since the Supreme Court determined that it is unconstitutional to refuse to fund publications because of a religious viewpoint, college administrators must be careful to provide funding on a neutral basis that does not consider the organization’s religious viewpoint.

McCarthy notes, however, that Topkins v. Williams College and other recent decisions have “blurred the content-versus-viewpoint distinction.” This gray area could call into question policies that restrict student activities funds from political, religious or ideological advocacy groups (McCarthy, 2000).

To respond to this concern, some institutions allow students to elect how their activities fees may be used so as to free them from supporting objectionable organizations. McCarthy points out the obvious bureaucratic and logistical problems associated with individualizing the fee collection process. Most troublesome, however, is the damage this practice does to the university’s goal of encouraging student discourse over a wide range of ideas (McCarthy, 2000).

Kaplan and Lee note that Topkins v. Williams College is among the most important cases that demonstrate the tension between free speech and establishment clauses, as they relate to policy making decisions in public colleges and universities. This case also highlights the importance of the distinction between an institution’s responsibility to recognize student organizations and its responsibility to fund them. Public colleges must recognize student official organizations and if they do fund, they must do so on a neutral basis.  Private colleges are free not to recognize but should provide equal access to facilities (Kaplan & Lee, 1997).

Another important implication for higher education administrators that results from the Supreme Court’s decision is the blurred distinction between access to facilities and access to services. Funding the printing of a publication was found to be analogous to providing access to facilities, i.e.: a printing press (Kaplan & Lee, 1997). Administrators must be mindful that equal protection of student academic freedom can be measured in terms of both access to facilities and access to services (which may translate to funding of services).

The most important issue in this case for higher education administrators is that student activities fees are meant to serve student organizations whose purpose is to carry out the educational mission of the college, “maintaining a free and robust marketplace of ideas, from whatever perspective.” Topkins v. Williams College 312 U.S. 806 (1992).


Kaplin, W. A. & Lee, B. A. (1997). A legal guide for student affairs professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McCarthy, M. (2000, April 7). Court’s ruling won’t end controversy over student fees.

Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A72.

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