University of California officials are considering proposals that would cut off money to a statewide student government group--a move that student leaders say would severely cripple their lobbying efforts in Sacramento--in the wake of a court case that says mandatory student fees cannot be used for political purposes.
Chancellors from the nine UC campuses are scheduled to meet in Oakland today to review proposals implementing a February order by the California Supreme Court, which held that none of the activity fees collected during student registration can be used by political, ideological or religious organizations. The U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand this month, sending a wave of panic among student government officials.
The decision could imperil funding for dozens of controversial campus groups. But it poses the most immediate threat to the UC Students Assn., a coalition of student governments from each campus that has been recognized by the Board of Regents as the official statewide voice of the system's 150,000 students. The UCSA runs a five-member office in Sacramento with $200,000 earmarked each year from the mandatory activity funds.
Over the years, the group has emerged as the students' most conspicuous lobbying force. It helped pass a constitutional amendment adding a student to the Board of Regents, and most recently crossed swords with UC administrators over proposals to raise student fees.
Now, university officials say the court decision leaves no choice but to "de-fund" UCSA, which they estimate spends 60% to 80% of its time buttonholing legislators and regents. If student government leaders want to continue to influence the Legislature, they will have to come up with another way to pay for it, said Dennis J. Galligani, UC assistant vice president for student academic services.
Mandatory student activity fees range from $73 a year per student at Santa Barbara to $21 a year at Berkeley. Galligani said there will still be mandatory fees to fund campus government and educational and social clubs.
But university officials are proposing a new system that will allow students to make additional donations to UCSA, as well as other campus organizations deemed to be political or ideological. The chancellors will consider proposals permitting students next spring to make the donations by checking off a special box during registration--much as taxpayers can donate to special funds listed on their income tax forms.
The UCSA executive director, Andrew Shaw, said the donation system would likely spell doom for his lobbying group because financially strapped students are not likely to part with their money.
Struggling to keep their funding alive, Shaw and other student government leaders want chancellors and regents to approve a "refundable escrow" system that would continue to allow the campuses to impose the full fee, but permit students to apply for partial refunds within the first few weeks. If the money is not claimed, it could be used by all groups.
Shaw contends that the UCSA proposal satisfies the court decision but acknowledges that it places the burden of getting a refund on "the individual who disagrees" with using the money for political purposes. UC officials are cool to the idea.
The fight over mandatory student activity fees began in 1979, when then-Hastings Law School student Arlo H. Smith--now a Democratic Party official and son of the San Francisco district attorney--filed suit against UC Berkeley over student activity money given to political and ideological groups, one of which was the forerunner of UCSA.
More than 30 students joined the suit and eventually were represented by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, which argued that students should not be subject to "forced association" with campus groups they do not agree with. In February, a sharply divided state Supreme Court agreed, ruling that mandatory fees, collected each semester at Berkeley since 1955, could not be used for groups deemed to be political, ideological or religious.
In its opinion, the court identified 14 of the 150 student groups registered at Berkeley at the time of the lawsuit as fitting that description. They included campus chapters of Amnesty International, the Campus Abortion Rights Action League, the Gay and Lesbian League and the Spartacus Youth League, a group that exists to advocate a revolutionary socialist movement.
The court also said student government could not use the mandatory funds to lobby state and local officials. But it held that fees could be used for groups that exist for educational or social purposes.
Galligani said chancellors and other university officials are trying to come up with guidelines to determine what campus activities and groups would be prevented from taking the mandatory funds. But he said the decision of how to apply those guidelines will be left up to each campus' student government, a move that Shaw said would pit student against student.