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Goldwater Institute Fighting for Students' First Amendment Rights Violated by Private Group

October 15, 2014

Contact: Michael Kelley, (602) 633-8965

The Goldwater Institute is representing five public university students whose First Amendment rights were violated when the Arizona Students Association used mandatory tuition surcharges to support a 2012 ballot initiative that the students opposed.

The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the three public universities in the state, voted last month to end a policy that diverted mandatory tuition surcharges to the Students Association, a private group that lobbies on behalf of Arizona’s 130,000 public university students.

The Students Association, which traditionally generates most of its income from $2-semester fees on public university students’ tuition bills, sued the Regents last month over the recent policy change. The Regents’ decision to end the mandatory dues collection came on the heels of a Goldwater Institute investigative report revealing that the Students Association was directing significant resources toward political activism, including a $120,000 donation to Prop 204, a proposed $1 billion state sales tax increase on the November 2012 ballot.

The Students Association’s lawsuit claims that the Regents’ decision to stop its automatic funding stream from tuition payments was retaliation for the Association’s high-profile election-time activism.

The five students requesting to join the lawsuit to defend the Regents’ decision, including state representative Paul Boyer, an Arizona State University graduate student, believe that the practice of mandatory dues-collection for the Student Association violated their First Amendment rights, because they were forced to subsidize political activity they didn’t agree with.

“University students shouldn’t have to worry when they pay their tuition bills that they are being forced to fund political causes they don’t support,” said Kurt Altman, the Goldwater Institute senior attorney who is representing the students. “The Students Association is a private organization, and it should raise its money from supporters of its positions, just like other private political groups.”

The Students Association claims that under the previous policy, students who wished not to support its agenda could “opt out” by applying for a refund. However, that opt-out process could only be initiated after the tuition surcharge had been collected, and the request had to be made in writing within the first 21 days of the semester. In its annual budget, which exceeded half a million dollars, the Students Association set aside only $50 for student refunds.

The Regents’ policy change has not eliminated funding for the Students Association altogether. Beginning in the fall of 2013, Arizona’s public universities will again collect $2 fees on tuition bills each semester, but the fee will not be automatically assessed—students will be given the choice to “opt in” to pay the fee.

“The only group that could oppose this sort of ‘opt-in’ funding mechanism is one that fears that, given the choice, students will choose not to support the organization,” said Altman.

Arizona’s is not the only state university system to fund a private activist group through tuition surcharges. The practice occurs at universities throughout the country, including in California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon.

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