Just days after UC Berkeley released money to pay more than $30,000 in student government (ASUC) expenses from a campaign to oppose Proposition 54, the ASUC has frozen the funds.
ASUC Judicial Chair Mike Davis ordered the freeze Monday, along with a gag order after right-leaning Senator Paul LaFata lodged a complaint against the Graduate Student Assembly (GA), which in September had earmarked $35,000 to the No on 54 campaign.
The university has faced heat from both sides of the political divide after agreeing to assume responsibility for student government funds spent on the campaign, but uphold its ban on student governments to participate in partisan politics.
The ruling, announced last week by Chancellor Robert Berdahl, infuriated both conservatives—who wanted student leaders to pay a price for ostensibly violating university rules by spending mandatory student fees on the campaign—and student government leaders—who argued the university’s interpretation of its rules denied them the right to lobby on issues of concern to students.
“To say we can’t do political advocacy, that’s outrageous,” said GA president Jessica Quindel, adding that her organization was considering suing the university. “Governments are supposed to be political, we’re not social clubs.”
The university froze the funds after the Berkeley College Republicans complained to the administration in September that while the school had barred them from using student money to help cover expenses for a visit by UC Regent and Proposition 54 sponsor Ward Connerly, the student government had funded the No on 54 campaign.
An ensuing university audit of the campaign found $31,187.32 in receipts and $6,662.70 in reimbursements paid for by mandated student fees.
University counsel Michael Smith said the expenditures violated university policy because student governments, unlike student clubs, are a unit of the university and were thus required to abide by regulations barring them from funding partisan political activities.
Since the administration determined that the student government received bad advice from its oversight body, the ASUC Auxiliary, it decided to cover expenses owed vendors for campaign propaganda and services from funds generated by ASUC business operations like the student bookstore and the Bear’s Lair.
Smith said he hopes that by using student business revenue instead of mandatory student fees to cover the debts, the university can head off a lawsuit threatened by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.
PLF attorney Greg Broderick said late Monday that he hadn’t received a copy of the university’s ruling.
Smith acknowledged that the university’s legal reasoning would make funding a political campaign illegal whether funds came from mandated student fees or business operations.
“The emphasis is on compulsory fees because of recent lawsuits from students [opposing their fee money spent on issues they oppose], but the bottom line principle would apply to any university money, not just compulsory fees.”
LaFata fears that if ASUC money—even from business revenue—is used to pay the vendors, student government will be vulnerable to lawsuits from outside interests, said one person close to the ASUC.
Ultimately, the university faces its fiercest opposition from the Graduate Assembly. In an opinion written to Smith, GA attorney Michael Sorgen charged that past California Supreme Court cases held that student governments were not “units of the university,” and even if they were, they retained the right to fund lobbying on partisan issues so long as both sides of the issue had the opportunity to receive funding.
“Certainly the university defines lobbying more narrowly than the student government,” Smith said.