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UC Bars Student Governments From State Political Campaigns

Friday February 20, 2004

The University of California has drafted a policy explicitly forbidding student governments from lobbying on state ballot initiatives, setting the university on a collision course with UC Berkeley student government leaders. 

In a second revised draft of student policies circulated this month, the university inserted a clause precluding student governments from using student fees collected by the university to lobby for or against a particular candidate or ballot proposition in a non-university election. The move attempts to clarify contradictory language in current UC codes that fueled a controversy last semester when the UC Berkeley graduate student government (GA) funded a student government campaign against Proposition 54—a November ballot initiative that would have barred race as a category in state-funded research. 

Student leaders were furious last November when UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl ruled the allocation illegal on grounds that student governments, like the university itself, were barred from lobbying on ballot initiatives. In December, the GA, which had earmarked $35,000 to fight the ballot measure they said would inhibit student research, voted to sue UC Berkeley if the university didn’t change its interpretation of UC policy. 

GA President Jessica Quindel called the new system-wide policy “unacceptable.” “How is it that when it comes to the legislature we can lobby all we want, but with ballot initiatives which have equal impact on students we lose our right to meaningful speech?” she asked. 

Though the policy is still in draft form and not slated for final approval until the summer, April Labbe of the University of California Student Association (UCSA) sees little chance for a revision. The policy was drafted by UC attorneys, she said, so it would likely take a lawsuit or a competing legal opinion to change it. 

“The student government is part of a state agency, the university, so the same rules apply to them,” said UC Berkeley Counsel Michael Smith. “They’re subject to the rules in the same way a staff member can’t take university money and spend it on a political campaign.” 

In contrast to student governments, the new policy reaffirms the rights of registered campus groups to lobby on ballot initiatives.  

The UC Board of Regents joined student governments to UC in 1972 to provide student government employees with university health and retirement benefits. The designation as “official units” is rare, but the policy on ballot initiatives is not. Melissa Unger of the University of Oregon Student Association said a 1986 Attorney General ruling forbids both student governments and campus organizations from lobbying on ballot initiatives in that state, which also uses initiatives to decide key issues of public policy. 

UCSA Executive Director Liz Geyer said the university has opted to interpret its policies “as conservatively as possible” to forestall possible lawsuits from well funded conservative legal groups like the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). That group threatened to sue UC Berkeley last year when it learned mandatory student fees were used on the “No on 54” campaign. 

“Their policy is totally irrational,” Geyer said. “They’re basically equating the student government to the French Department.” 

The PLF might have sued Berkeley had they upheld the student government’s allocation, Smith acknowledged, but he maintained the specter of a lawsuit did not drive UC’s ruling. 

Labbe of the UCSA said she plans to work with the Regents to determine if they would drop the “official unit” status of student governments while finding a way to safeguard the privileges for employees the status provides. 

Should that effort fail, a lawsuit seems likely, GA President Quindel said.  

A student website laid out their arguments pointing to language elsewhere in the student code specifying that “positions on issues taken by student governments shall not be represented as or deemed to be official positions of the University,” and the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin vs. Southworth. In that case the students argue the court ruled student speech is different from that of the university and that “a university may allow the broadest range of activities to be funded as possible.” 

UC Hastings Law Professor David Levine called a possible lawsuit, “a close one,” but thought UC would prevail. He said even though, when it comes to lobbying on ballot initiatives, “UC might not be required to make a distinction between student governments and registered campus groups, but as long as UC has a rationale basis for making the distinction, it’s entitled to make it.”