Caught in a blizzard of outdated and conflicting regulations, UC Berkeley is trying to determine whether the student government violated UC laws by funding a campaign against Proposition 54.
At issue is the Graduate Assembly’s (GA) decision three weeks ago to allocate $35,000, some from compulsory student fees, to the “No on 54” campaign coordinated by members of both the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) and the Graduate Assembly. The money came from funds carried over from the last year’s GA budget.
The campaign ordered signs, buttons and other materials to mount a fight against the initiative that would bar the state from tracking race-based data. But campus officials said the campaign has withheld payment on all purchases until the top attorney at the UC Office of the President weighs in on the case.
“The university is looking into the question if university policies were followed,” said UC Berkeley Dean of Students Karen Kenney, adding that the university was determining if ballot measures fell under the student’s right to lobby or the university’s prohibition against using funds for partisan political purposes.
The conflict led to a raucous scene at the ASUC Senate session Wednesday night. Senator Paul LaFata from the right-of-center APPLE Party demanded the resignation of ASUC External Vice President Anu Joshi and Graduate Assembly President Jessica Quindel, and claimed someone at the UCLA School of Law intended to file suit against the student government.
Joshi, a major force behind the “No on 54” campaign, insisted she had violated no laws and that ASUC and UC bylaws were in violation of a recent Supreme Court ruling.
School officials would not comment on any penalties the ASUC might face if it were found to have violated university bylaws.
When the controversy first broke earlier this week, UC Berkeley quickly rebuked the GA for violating rules against funding groups for “partisan political purposes.”
But the university tempered its response after a Wednesday meeting with student government officials who provided legal precedents they said vindicated the GA.
“We are convinced that everything we did is completely legal,” said Graduate Assembly Executive Vice President Cintya Molina, adding that the assembly had received counsel before making the decision. While ASUC bylaws explicitly prevent it from funding ballot initiatives, Molina said the GA was not bound by those rules.
UC’s guidelines are a muddled collage that raises more questions than answers.
According to university policy 83.10, compulsory student government fees cannot be used to support political, ideological, or religious organizations or activities. However, this policy was written in 1994, before a California Supreme Court Case and U.S. Supreme Court case granted student governments more say over their fees.
In 1999, UC—responding to the court decisions—changed its policy to allow the ASUC and the GA to fund political organizations so long as the funding was based on merit, not politics, and providing for a proportional refund to students who disagreed. Included among the types of activities qualifying for the refund are support or sponsorship of ballot initiatives.
Student government officials said the policy paved the way for funding the campaign, but representatives at the UC Office of the President disagreed.
Hanan Eisenman, UCOP spokesperson, said the 1999 policy applies only to student organizations, not the student government. Because the “NO on 54” campaign had close ties to both the ASUC and the GA, school officials said it remained to be determined if “NO on 54” could be considered separate from the governments themselves.
If UC officials determine the campaign was actually an extension of the student government, it would then be illegal, Eisenman said, because the ASUC is an official unit of the university and therefore prohibited by UC bylaws and state law from funding ballot initiatives.
UC is nearing the end of a two year process of rewriting its Policy on Student Governments. Section 63.00 of the new draft guidelines state that “Positions on issues taken by student governments shall not be represented or deemed to be positions of any entity of the University, other than the student government.”
A Feb. 10, 2003, letter from UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Genaro M. Padilla offered comments on various passages of the updated policies, but did not recommend changing the language of Section 63.00. In his letter, Padilla said that “unless otherwise noted, our comments...should be read to adopt the suggestions previously presented in the policy outline distributed to the campuses for comment.”
April Labbe, university affairs director for the Student Association of the University of California—which advocates for UC student governments—said other UC campuses have already begun using the revised policies. “As far as I’m concerned, this is university policy,” she said. “If we had thought that what the student government was doing was illegal, we would have steered them away from it.”
Eisenman replied that because the language had not yet been adopted, it didn’t apply to the Prop. 54 campaign.
The student government insists that whatever the current UC bylaws, their right to fund ballot initiative campaigns is protected by the United States Supreme Court.
In 2000 the court ruled 9-0 that the University of Wisconsin Regents could allow compulsory student fees to be spent on student lobbying as long as the allocations were based solely on merit. In that case, student Scott Southworth argued that using compulsory student fees to fund political speech violated his right not to associate with groups he did not support.
Student government officials said that the decision effectively freed them to use mandatory fees to fund lobbying as long as it was viewpoint neutral.
But Boalt Hall School of Law Professor Jesse Choper said the Southworth case doesn’t apply in this scenario. “Southworth is a narrow opinion that tries to decide as few things as possible,” he said. “Southworth said a university may [permit compulsory fees to be used for lobbying]. Nothing in Southworth supports the view that the university must [do that]. This is a case in which the university of California says it won’t let funds be used for any political purposes.”
Aside from the legal wrangling, students remained divided whether their government should be in the business of taking sides on ballot measures—regardless of legality.
“The ASUC ought not fund off-campus political campaigns unless it represents the common interests of students,” wrote ASUC Senator Paul LaFata in an e-mail to the Daily Planet. “With Prop. 54 there is a substantial number of students who are on both sides of the issue; it is requiring those students [who don’t agree] to give tax-like money to the other side.”
Molina countered that collecting race-based data was essential for graduate student research and that the GA was defending their constituent’s interests in funding the “No on 54” campaign.
“Graduate students voted on this because they knew it was essential to the research mission of the university,” she said. “If you can’t do the research here people will go to New York to do research on race.”
The biggest losers appear to be the students active in the campaign. Most of the supplies purchased were bought by students who expected to be reimbursed by the money allocated from the GA.
“I’m one of the ones waiting to be reimbursed,” Molina said.