The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday left intact a University of Maryland policy barring a campus-based social action group from using funds it collects from students to pay for lawsuits the group initiates.
The high court gave no reason for refusing to hear an appeal by the group, Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG), which claimed the university's ban violated its constitutional right to sue.
"This decision makes students second-class depriving them of clearly recognized rights that apply to other members of our society," said Gerry Spann, a lawyer for the student-staff group.
MaryPIRG sued the university's Board of Regents in 1976 after the Regents - the University's governing body - imposed a ban on the consumer group's use of student activities funds to hire staff lawyers to file lawsuits.
MaryPIRG is funded by the university's Student Government Association, which assesses every one of 24,000 undergraduate students an annual fee of $18 for a variety of school activities. The Board of Regents must approve the association's budget.
Judge Frank A. Kaufman of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled in favor of MaryPIRG in December 1976, declaring that the school's ban violated the right of free expression and right to sue.
Kaufman's decision was overturned last November by the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 4th Circuit, which held, "Freedom to sue has not been denied MaryPIRG by the (regents') resolve. Only the direction of state funds to that end has been withdrawn."
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, MaryPIRG argued that it needs paid staff attorneys to file lawsuits when the organization has difficulty obtaining documents under state and federal Freedom of Information acts.
University officials replied that the lawsuits. The only restriction, they are group was prohibited from filing gued, was using funds collected by the university for litigation expenses. The student activity fee is paid as part of tuition bills.
MaryPIRG has charged that the Board of Regents imposed its litigation ban as reprisal against the group for clashing with university officials over the opening of a bank branch on the College Park Campus.
The dispute arose when MaryPIRG questioned the state bank commissioner's unusually long delay on an application by the Chevy Chase Bank & Trust Co. which wanted to open a campus branch. An investigation by the group later revealed that the university had deposits of nearly $100 million in Suburban Trust Co. which had a branch near the campus, and that the university's President, Wilson H. Elkins, was a director of Suburban Trust Co.